Unmanned “Unplugged”

Alan Frazier, University of North Dakota

In anticipation of the 2015 integration of unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace, universities are increasingly offering courses and training programs in the UAS field. Academic institutions across the nation are expanding their unmanned systems programs in recognition of the potential job market. The University of North Dakota was the first to offer a four-year degree in unmanned aircraft piloting. Increasing Human Potential caught up with Alan Frazier, an assistant professor at University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. Frazier joined the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences after retiring from a 30-year career in law enforcement, and has since also initiated the Law Enforcement Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Project.

How has your experience in law enforcement and aviation informed your classes and your view on UAS?

Having worked many years in a police air support unit has helped me understand and frame the issues surrounding the use of unmanned aircraft systems in law enforcement. There are many similarities (airspace, crew rest, weather limitations, etc…) between the operation of manned and unmanned aircraft. My experience as a pilot and law enforcement officer has also been very helpful in the drafting of our UAS Unit’s Policies and Procedures as well our University of North Dakota Flight Policies and Procedures related to the UAS utilized in my project.


In your opinion, how would your time working in law enforcement have been impacted had you been able to utilize the benefits of UAS?

During my 30 years of serving as a law enforcement officer, there were hundreds of situations in which an unmanned aircraft would have made the job safer or easier. From checking roofs on burglary alarm calls, to searching a neighborhood for a lost child, a UAS would have been very helpful. Unfortunately, at the present time, we are limited by the very strict conditions of our Certificates of Authorization which are issued by the FAA. Having to provide an hour or more notice of a proposed UAS operation and prohibition on nighttime operations are two of the greatest challenges.


UND was the first university in the country to offer a four-year degree in unmanned aircraft piloting. How did the University of North Dakota became a leader in unmanned aircraft training and development?

The University of North Dakota has a rich history of providing aviation education and flight training. Starting in 1967 with 2 Cessna 150airplanes, the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences now employs several hundred employees and utilizes a fleet over 120 aircraft to provide flight education to approximately 1400 students. The inclusion of unmanned aircraft systems in the mix was a natural progression for an organization that takes pride in remaining at the cutting edge of aviation education, training and research. One individual, Professor Ben Trapnell, deserves special recognition. Ben was responsible for creating our UAS degree curriculum including drafting the course outlines for all of the UAS courses. Ben is also the primary instructor of our UAS courses. The combination of UAS education, training and research, as well as strong support from our industry partners, has helped us gain the solid reputation that we currently enjoy in the UAS field.


How has UND’s collaboration with law enforcement enhanced the UAS program?

The Law Enforcement Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Project brings the real world to our UAS education, training and research efforts. Although students are not directly involved in the project, I frequently have the opportunity to brief classes on the use of UAS in law enforcement. In addition, two of our four project UAS pilots are UND graduates.


It was recently reported NBC that many students interested in aviation are starting to pursue degrees in UAS over the commercial pilot route. Why is that?

Two reasons: Better pay and excellent computer literacy. Graduates of UAS degree programs, as well as military veteran UAS operators, are being hired at a tremendous rate and being paid excellent salaries that in many cases exceed $100,000 annually. Compare this to regional airline starting salaries that are usually less than $30,000 annually and the monetary incentive to fly UAS is crystal clear. College freshman enter our universities with high levels of computer literacy. I believe that this “wired generation” finds the human-machine interface of unmanned aircraft systems fascinating. Not only is the money good, but the work is intriguing.


What sort of trends are you seeing across UAS-related programs at colleges and universities nationally?

The primary trend is that many educational institutions have recognized the potential of unmanned aircraft systems and have become aware of the vast opportunities that exist in the UAS education and training arena. Many universities and community colleges are working diligently to launch UAS-related education and training programs.


As you know, UAS have a host of potential uses, both by public agencies such as fire departments, as well as the private sector. What are some of the potential uses you are most excited about?

Since my background is in public safety, I am naturally biased towards the utilization of UAS in law enforcement, fire, and search and rescue applications. A few of the missions that I believe small UAS will excel at are: Crime and traffic accident scene photography; searches for lost people; post-disaster assessments; situational awareness at fire scenes; crowd and traffic monitoring at major events; hazardous material incident monitoring; and searches for criminals within a defined incident perimeter.


The University of North Dakota recently developed a UAS Research Compliance Committee. Can you tell us a bit more about the main purpose of this committee and why the committee’s work is important in the field of UAS? 

The University of North Dakota’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Compliance Committee (UASRCC) was conceived by Dr. Barry Milavetz who serves as UND’s Associate Vice President for Research Development & Compliance. The UASRCC is essentially the University of North Dakota’s “UAS conscience”. The committee attempts to apply community standards to its evaluation of UAS research to determine the appropriateness of a particular research effort. The committee consists of 15 members representing the community at large, UND faculty and staff , local government, and local public safety agencies (fire and police). All UND UAS related research must be reviewed and approved by the committee before implementation. The committee’s work is vitally important to the UAS field because of the very real need to engage the public in determining the way in which this exciting technology can be used both efficiently and ethically in domestic U.S. applications. If, as an industry and end-user group, we ignore the greater public’s opinion in this area, we will face almost certain failure in our efforts to try to move UAS forward.


What efforts have you made to incorporate privacy protections into your UAS research?
Our attention to the important area of privacy protection is evidenced in a variety of forms: Our UAS Operator and Sensor System Operator Training Programs both included a block of instruction on constitutional issues, search and seizure case law, and privacy. We provide update training on these issues quarterly. Our Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department UAS Unit Policies and Procedures Manual extensively addresses issues such as respect for privacy of the citizens we serve, respect for constitutional protections, minimization of sensor system use and image retention, and proper safeguarding of any retained images. The previously discussed University of North Dakota Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Compliance Committee reviews all mission sets that our unit performs. And finally, our Unit has adopted the International Association of Chiefs of Police “Recommended Guidelines for the use of Unmanned Aircraft” which, among other important issues, addresses privacy.


To learn more about the UAS program at the University of North Dakota, check out the UND website.