Drones could one day expand to allow a single farmer to monitor his entire farm without leaving his house. Rutgers University plans to begin developing and testing these unmanned aerial systems.
The Federal Aviation Administration awarded Rutgers a contract to develop UAS, currently used by the military, for civilian use.
UAS are expected to see increased use in civilian fields in the coming years, said Elsayed A. Elsayed, a key member of the research team. They will be tasked to fill a variety of roles.
“At the moment, you cannot rely on a UAS in the national airspace, so the government mandated the FAA to find out what’s needed to be able to fly [in a civilian airspace],” said Elsayed, a distinguished professor and interim chairman of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
The research will be ongoing over the next several years, he said. The FAA plans to take the results from the first phase of the project and present them to Congress in order to create more concrete parameters for the system designs.
Currently a UAS can fly for 12 to 16 hours on a gallon of fuel, Elsayed said, but in the future half a gallon may be sufficient for at least 16 hours of flight time.
The units themselves are smaller than a typical aircraft, he said. The wingspan is about 13 meters, or a little above the width of a tennis court, and a unit can weigh anywhere from 400 to 800 pounds.
The Rutgers chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics said the research into improving UAS technology would be beneficial to both the University and society.
Today, UAS are used for land surveying, pesticide dispersal, weather monitoring and emergency situations such as search and rescue missions, members of the Rutgers AIAA said.
The main goal for the project is to create reliable machines that can easily be integrated into civilian airspace, Elsayed said. Their communication capabilities and airworthiness would be important factors in answering those questions.
The important part of this project will be combining the individual features of UAS into a single working aircraft that can perform a wide array of tasks, such as atmospheric monitoring, GPS tracking and wireless communication, the members of the Rutgers AIAA said.
The UAS would have to fly at specific altitudes to precise coordinates, Elsayed said. To do this, the researchers would need to ensure that on-board computers could handle any potential in-flight issues.
He said fail-safes would be built in to deal with these issues, such as propellers failing in flight and the unit losing contact with the pilot.
Ensuring that the pilot-less aircraft could operate autonomously is a chief concern, he said.
Increasing demand for civilian UAS will reveal their limitations, Elsayed said, which will bring more research opportunities for the University.
New algorithms would be designed to control the units, he said. These algorithms would analyze the data gathered by the UAS and provide information for the University, the FAA and eventually, the users.
Different departments within the School of Engineering plan to contribute to UAS research, he said. Students studying mechanical engineering may be able to design and build UAS as part of their senior design projects.
Matthew Makmur, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said programming students would benefit from projects similar to the algorithms the UAS would use.
Members of the Rutgers AIAA said University students already had experience with various aspects of unmanned flight.
“[Students] within the School of Engineering and senior design groups work every day with image recognition systems, data analysis, flight control [and] system integration,” they said.