Savannah Evanoff Staff Reporter
When people hear the word drone their heads become filled with unsettling thoughts like missiles, attacks and warfare. Here at Oklahoma State University, however, they are referred to as UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, and are used for purposes such as agriculture, meteorology and emergency response.
Jamey Jacob, professional engineer and professor at OSU, explained that a standard drone has a wingspan of approximately 6 feet and consists of the aircraft itself, ground control station, autopilot, communication system and payloads carried by the vehicle.
“There is always a pilot involved,” Jacob said. “He just happens to be on the ground.”
In 2011, OSU began offering a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering with an option to specialize in unmanned aerial systems. This was great timing because UAVs are the fastest growing sector of the aviation industry with a projection of 80 percent to be used in future agriculture, Jacob said.
Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Technology and Director of OSU’s National Energy Solutions Institute, said Oklahoma is in a great position to develop the industry, and OSU will provide the workforce the industry needs.
“OSU is one of the leading universities doing research and education for young people in this area,” McKeever said. “We are providing technology development through research and on the other hand providing future workforce.”
Jacob confirms that the graduate program is a success and said it is largely due to the foundation laid down by Andrew Arena, T.J. Cunningham Endowed Chair and professor.
He said OSU recently teamed up with a number of other leading universities across the country to be named a Federal Aviation Administration Center of Excellence for UAS and is still awaiting the results.
“We have a very strong, hands-on program that requires students to build and test things,” Jacob said.
With an estimated 40 people in this competitive graduate program, there are a variety of different types of UAS aspects being researched. One of the exciting elements being researched is improving emergency response efforts.
“What I am working on is developing a UAV for the use in fire protection or basically emergency response for firemen,” said Fred Keating, a graduate student at OSU.
Thomas Hays, a Ph. D candidate who performs UAV propulsion research, said if drones were allowed to operate after an emergency, cell coverage could quickly be restored, generate and update maps of the affected areas and airlift supplies when clogged or destroyed roads prevent access.
“The drone is not going to save your life any time soon, but it will make the people who are trying to save you much more effective at doing so,” Hays said.
Another graduate student, Taylor Mitchell, is working on a project coordinated by the Department of Energy and describes the project’s goal as a double win.
“I have an airplane that the idea is to detect carbon dioxide leaks,” Mitchell said. “It increases the amount of oil you get and reduces greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
Some of the other aspects being researched are more involved with aircraft design and performance, such as graduate student James Leonard’s research on solar cell integration in the aircraft design, and Dillon Nelson’s research on wing design to help match a perching maneuver. There are many other areas of ongoing UAS research at OSU left unmentioned.
“There really is not a field where autonomous drones could not eventually become useful,” Hays said.