Tristan Navera Staff Reporter-Dayton Business Journal
A Federal Aviation Administration decision could bring unmanned aerial systems jobs and research to Dayton in coming years, but the University of Dayton Research Institute has been ahead of the curve.
Larrell Walters, head of UDRI sensors systems division and director of IDCast, has overseen an organization that is already hard at work developing sensor systems and technology for the emerging UAS industry, and he says the developments coming out of UDRI even now show real promise. Since 2009, when it received a $3 million grant to create the center for UAV exploitation , UDRI has worked to build the sensor technology into unmanned air vehicles.
Q: What kinds of sensor technology have you been working on since then?
A: If you think of an unmanned air system without a sensor, it’s basically just a target. You really can’t do anything with an unmanned air system without a sensor. There’s two functions the sensors play. One, the ability of the aircraft to see what it’s doing and make sure it’s flying level and sees trees and things, but also to complete the mission. It’s a different set of sensors to fly — the GPS and visual systems to help the pilot see what’s going on around it — compared to complete the mission, like finding disease in crops.
It does not concentrate on designing UAVs or engines or power, but it’s all about the payload integration. The payload on a UAV would be the sensors, the things to make those sensors communicate, and to power the sensors. It might change; if I have a 20-pound battery-powered UAV, and I change from a single photo camera to a movie camera with a gimbal that can pan and zoom, then I have to have different types of controls communicated to and from the UAV. Maybe the bandwidth being sent down is a lot greater, taking video. It might also hang out of the aircraft and create more aerodynamic drag, or affect its battery power. Figuring out the combination of all of these things is what payload integration is all about.
Q: What other kinds of UAV technology do you develop?
A: There’s the idea of a UAV perching on a power line and recharging its batteries while perched on the power line, and then continuing its mission. This would allow UAVs to extend their useful time on mission by being able to find places where they can recharge through induction.
We’ve done work in the area of compression technologies, when we take video and pictures, they’re big and it’s expensive to send data and video to the ground, so there’s a need to optimize the information to be as small as possible so you can get more down the data link. We’ve worked to maximize the utility of data links, and now we’re building chambers where we’ll explore the best way to verify and validate unmanned systems. If they lose their control and communication link, it’s flying without receiving signals. We also work on algorithms, what the pictures tell you, how you find the disease in the crop field, or the bad rails or spikes on a railroad track? Being able to automate the image processing to not only create the picture but to discern what it can tell you without people sitting there at each little picture marking it up.
Q: How would the UAS test center designation change business for UDRI?
A: At UDRI, we’re externally sponsored 100 percent, so we’re always writing proposals to do work for people, engineering and research and development. If more companies come to town looking for UAS-work, they’ll find UDRI, and Wright State and Sinclair, all to be organizations the companies can use to move along faster. When I worked for Goodrich, we were looking outside of the state for this expertise, and now it’s just 20 miles down the road. As companies come to Dayton they’ll see the capabilities … we’re one of several entities that those companies will be able to benefit from.