At two big open fields – one near Belpre, the other about five miles southwest of Athens – kids and adults gather from near and far to fly their radio-controlled model airplanes.
But when Ohio University researcher Michael Braasch and his colleagues show up at either to do a little test-flying with their experimental aircraft model, all other planes are typically grounded while the hobbyists gather round to ooh and ah at the coolest toy in the airspace.
“Oh, it’s hysterical,” Braasch said. “Generally what happens is, they all bring their airplanes in, and they just watch. They are so thrilled by it; they just want to watch.”
It’s not hard to see why; the plane that’s put in the air by OU’s Avionics Engineering Center, which Braasch directs, is one eye-catching piece of work.
Built from a kit, it has about a six-foot wingspan, and a “push” propeller in back, rather than a “pull” type in front. Its white body is decorated in bands of brightly colored tape, which Braasch said is meant to “make it as visible as possible” from the ground.
Braasch and his fellow researchers are working on ways to make unmanned aircraft safer, as such craft take over more duties in the military, police and commercial sectors.
Such aircraft, often called “drones,” have been much in the news lately, as they get smaller and more sophisticated. The U.S. military uses them to launch attacks on suspected terrorists. Police around the country are clamoring to get them for use in surveillance. Both uses have stirred controversy.
An article earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal said drone use is increasing domestically. The story noted that “with little public attention,” more than 50 universities and law enforcement agencies have gotten approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones.
Organizations now authorized to fly drones, the story said, include “not only agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security but also smaller ones such as the police departments in North Little Rock, Ark., and Ogden, Utah, as well the University of North Dakota and Nicholls State University in Louisiana.” The list also included OU.
As the story reported, the rise of the drone is raising civil rights concerns. Two U.S. congressmen have recently asked Michael Huerta, the acting administrator of the FAA, to answer questions about the privacy implications of increased drone use.
The House members noted in a letter than many drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment; civil libertarians have suggested their increased use by law enforcement may raise new legal issues about what constitutes a “search.”
OU’s research, however, according to Braasch, is somewhat “generic,” and could be used to improve the performance of unmanned aircraft used for whatever purpose. He pointed out that drones can be put to good use in jobs featuring “the three Ds” – that is, work so “dull, dirty or dangerous” that a machine is better suited for it than a human.
This might include monitoring crops, or watching a border for illegal immigrants, he said. Braasch noted that drones were used to investigate the interior of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the disaster there. Though OU has gotten federal funding in the past, the research currently has no outside funders, Braasch said.
Though OU’s plane is much bigger, and more technologically sophisticated, than the typical radio-controlled (RC) airplane, he said, “we fly under what’s known as the model aircraft rules.”
These include flying only below 400 feet, in non-populated areas, and having the operator keep the plane in sight at all times; this generally means keeping it within about a half-mile away. The plane is even controlled with a double-joystick handset that looks remarkably like those used for RC planes and cars.
The main legal difference between OU’s plane and a hobby plane is that because OU researchers aren’t flying it for amusement, the FAA wants to know whenever it takes off.
OU is currently one of the major academic centers for unmanned aircraft research, along with MIT and Princeton. OU’s research, according to Braasch, is aimed primarily at improving the electronics that provide a drone with “sense-and-avoid” and “command-and-control” capabilities.
“In cases where you need to fly it beyond the line of sight of the person on the ground, you want the vehicle to have a certain degree of autonomy,” he explained. “It needs to be able to react very quickly.”
While big airliners have long had autopilot systems, he noted, putting such systems onto a much smaller drone presents a challenge. A gyroscope for a jet, for example, might be considerably bigger than a softball, and too heavy for a smaller craft.
The design of OU’s plane makes it easy to try different electronic configurations. The circuitry goes in the nose cone, which thanks to the rear-propulsion system doesn’t have a propeller in front of it. The plane has multiple, detachable nose sections, so new electronics can be popped in and out.
While OU’s research is helping move toward safer, smarter and more independent drones, no progress is ever made without a few missteps. Braasch recalls the time when the plane was put up, and the operator flipped a switch to transfer control from the ground to the plane itself. When the switch flipped, so did the plane, turning itself neatly upside down.
“It immediately inverted the airplane, which caused a little bit of consternation among the crew on the ground,” he recalled. The operator, however, quickly regained manual control and righted the craft.
One neat aspect of OU’s research program, according to Colleen Carow, spokesperson for OU’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology, is that it’s not limited to grad students and profs.
“We do have undergraduates working on this technology,” she noted. “It allows them to work on really cutting-edge stuff.”