Unmanned “Unplugged”

General James Poss, Mississippi State University

Gen. James Poss is the director of strategic initiatives for Mississippi State University. His position utilizes his military experience and expertise in UAS to help develop high-priority research areas and opportunities for the university. Increasing Human Potential recently had the opportunity to talk to Poss and learn more about his projects and research.

About two years ago, you were selected as the director of strategic initiatives for Mississippi State University. How does this position relate to UAS research? What kinds of UAS-related research are happening at Mississippi State?

Dr. David Shaw brought me on to his staff at Mississippi State get the university into new research projects with the DOD and intelligence community and to apply my Air Force intelligence expertise to civil uses. The work I’ve been able to do with UAS at Mississippi really has been a terrific combination of both roles. I’ve found that the DOD is interested in applying research at Mississippi State for UAS. For example, we have a scientist researching if we can teach UAS to hear sounds like a bird can to avoid hazards. It works the other way also — lessons I learned about UAS safety in the Air Force have been invaluable as we’ve improved our UAS program at MSU.

MSU is doing some very exciting UAS research. Raspet Flight Lab, the oldest university flight lab in the country, specializes in advanced composite material for UAS. They’re working on multifunction composites than can be used for more than one purpose in a UAS. For example, you can use their composites to build an engine nacelle that is structurally sound but also dampens noise and heat from the engine. My favorite is a composite that can harvest electric energy back from aerodynamic flutter on the control surfaces.

Our Geosystems Research Institute and Department of Agriculture have been teaming on unmanned precision agriculture for a long time. In the Mississippi delta, Mississippi State and the U.S. Department of Agriculture jointly run the largest agricultural research station in the country. Our scientists use this research station to find the type of UAS sensors and processors needed to make very precise forecasts of crop yields and prescriptions to solve a variety of crop problems. As you can imagine, agribusinesses, farmers, crop insurance companies and even crop futures speculators are very interested in their work.

When your position was announced, you said that Mississippi was well positioned to be a significant player in UAS research and development. What about Mississippi makes it qualified to become a leader in this field?

I was really surprised to find out how much Mississippi was doing in UAS research. We already had three leading UAS manufacturers in the state when I moved home. Northrup Grumman has a Global Hawk, EuroHawk, Triton and Fire Scout factory on the coast. The U.S. affiliate of Israeli Aircraft Industries — Stark Aerospace — builds its ArrowLite, Hunter and Heron UAS in Columbus. Perhaps most exciting, Aurora Flight Sciences builds its giant Orion long-endurance UAS about 15 minutes from main campus. It’s designed to fly for five days at a time.

These major manufacturers moved to Mississippi because our governor runs a business-friendly state, we have a capable work force and because he made our research universities available to support them.  Aurora used Mississippi State’s giant autoclave at the Raspet Flight Lab to make the wings for its prototype Orion. Our research scientists helped IAI refine the engine control software for its ArrowLite. Our High Performance Computing Center is always available to our Mississippi manufacturers; it has the 11th fastest computer in U.S. academia, and we’re about to double its capacity. The University of Southern Mississippi made its world-class Mississippi Polymer Institute available to work advanced coatings and corrosion control for UAS. Even our junior colleges support our UAS industry – Hinds Junior College in Jackson trains UAS pilots and East Mississippi Community College teaches advance composites manufacturing.

Finally, we have plenty of places to fly UAS in Mississippi and some of the best flying weather in the U.S. There’s a good reason the Air Force trains about a third of their pilots and the Navy trains over half their strike pilots in Mississippi. Our Army Guard has roughly 125,000 acres of training area available for military UAS at Camp Shelby, where they run the Army’s Regional UAS Flight Center. Our Air Guard has a massive range covering most of the northern gulf off Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, monitored by controllers who have combat experience with UAS. NASA Stennis is working another 125,000 acres of restricted airspace to support UAS operations by our Navy SEALs at Stennis and civilian UAS operations. Mississippi State University has FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] certificates of authorization [COAs] to fly UAS over all of the lower Pearl River and most of the Mississippi delta.

You’ve spoken publicly about attempting to have Mississippi State designated by the FAA as the Center of Excellence for UAS research. What has the university done to prep itself for this? Why does it deserve such a designation?

We’ve been preparing for his competition for over five years and have been a formal team for about three. Our strategy was to sign up U.S. universities with the most practical experience with both UAS and the FAA. Our idea was to get the schools that could turn research into rules for the FAA, vice schools that were long on theory but short on practical applications. We also decided to get the top Canadian, British and Israeli UAS universities, both to learn from how their countries are integrating UAS and to make it easier for the FAA to promulgate UAS rules to our closest neighbors, then worldwide, by assembling an international UAS research coalition.

We signed up nearly every U.S. university we targeted in a formal teaming agreement, and we ended up with the most experienced UAS schools in the country on our team. We’re calling ourselves ASSURE, for the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence. We have three schools that are core to FAA UAS Test sites — the University of North Dakota, University of Alaska Fairbanks and New Mexico State University. We have three of the top airworthiness schools in the country — Kansas State University, the University of Kansas and Wichita State. We have the top rotorcraft experts in the country at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Embry-Riddle is the largest aeronautical university in the world with 250 locations in nine countries. North Carolina State runs unmanned systems for their entire state on behalf of their governor. Drexel works hand in hand with the FAA Data Center in New Jersey. Oregon State helped VDOS get off the ground with one of the first commercial UAS operations in the country. Montana State does great work with unmanned precision agriculture. Of course, Mississippi State is well equipped for our leadership role. We’ve incubated three UAS manufacturers in Mississippi, built the world’s first all composite aircraft, made the prototype for the world’s first composite business jet, have the largest composite manufacturing facilities of any U.S. university and have some of the fastest super computers in the country. We also build our own UAS and do pretty well every year at the student UAS competitions. Together we have more UAS than the U..S Air Force has MQ-1/9s and RQ-4s, fly more UAS hours than anyone besides the DOD, lead one-third of the existing FAA Centers of Excellence and sit on 14 different aviation rulemaking committees.

But, we’re most proud of the corporate support for ASSURE. We have over 100 government and corporate team mates on ASSURE. Our roster reads like a who’s who in the UAS industry with leading airframe, data link, autopilot, control, engine, air traffic control and air traffic management manufacturers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Israel. We have the leading experts in UAS safety, training, spectrum management, unmanned cargo delivery, precision agriculture and geospatial sciences. We’re hoping to pool resources from our partners to solve the problems that are preventing everyone from fully utilizing UAS in this country, from finding a reliable way to detect and avoid air traffic to operating UAS beyond line of sight to establishing training standards for UAS aircrew.

Your background began in the military, with a long stint in the Air Force, leading intelligence for different agencies. What about your previous service lead you to UAS work, and how does it aid with the work you’re doing now?

It’s actually funny that we do so much work with IAI in Mississippi, because my first experience with UAS was during the U.S. Army’s first combat deployment of a UAS, during Desert Storm. I was attached to U.S. VII Corps, and we launched a very noisy IAI Pioneer about 100 yards from my tent at all hours of the day and night. Since 1991, I’ve worked with the early General Atomics Predators during the Kosovo Air War, planned the first armed Predator strikes during early Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, helped set up our remote split operations that lets the Air Force fly UAS from thousands of miles away and helped build the Distributed Common Ground Station network that lets the Air Force matrix intelligence analysts from dozens of sites in to support any of their UAS missions. During this time, I was also supported a lot of allied UAS programs. When I was chief of Air Force Intelligence Europe, we helped the Italian air force set up their UAS program and first brought the Royal Air Force into our remote split ops and DCGS networks. I was awarded Aviation Week’s Curtis Sword award in 2012 for this work with the RAF. As you can imagine, I also spent a lot of time in Israel with their air force UAS operations. I actually go to meet the designer of the Pioneer and he apologized for all the noise his system made near my tent.

My Air Force experience has been very useful in my work today. Civilian UAS companies and operators are just now experiencing the same issues we’ve been dealing with for years in the military. For example, we’re having the same debate at Mississippi State about UAS that we had in the Air Force during Kosovo. Just like our Air Force intelligence officers, our geospatial researchers think of UAS as a sensor with wings. Just like Air Force aircrew, our aero engineering researchers tend to think of UAS as wings with a sensor. I think we’ll learn the same lessons we did in the Air Force — that you have to rigorously treat UAS like manned aircraft when it comes to safety, operator training and airworthiness, but you have to operate them like flying sensors to get the best results. Our unmanned precision agriculture researchers are very interested in how the military processes their UAS data remotely, because they have a very similar problem processing very technical sensor data gathered from dozens of remote locations.

My UAS industry and foreign contacts have been very useful for both ASSURE and Mississippi State. My friends at the British and Israeli embassies made it easy to find companies and universities from their countries to join our team. Since I had worked with nearly all of the major American UAS manufacturers while I was in the Air Force, it was easier to convince corporate partners to join ASSURE.

You were involved in using UAS and sensing technology after Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a part of the disaster response. What did you learn from those experiences, specifically as it pertains to the role and comparative advantage of UAS to manned flight? 

The aftermath of the largest storm to ever strike our country and the largest oil spill in our nation’s history drove home the fact to Mississippians and the rest of the Gulf Coast that we need to integrate UAS into our National Airspace System. The Air Force and Army couldn’t fly UAS to support either event, because we hadn’t really begun to look into the issues involved in flying UAS over our own country. We knew how to do it in combat in foreign countries, but not for disasters in our own. As a result, our military took sensors off their UAS and attached them to tall buildings on the Gulf Coast to look for survivors after Katrina. The BP oil spill presented a textbook case of how the long duration of UAS would have been invaluable to track oil slicks as they floated to our beaches. Instead, we had to switch off manned aircraft every few hours and often lost track of the slicks in the Gulf.

The big advantages of UAS over manned aircraft in disaster recovery it that they’re cheaper than manned aircraft, so we can fly more of them and they can fly longer than manned aircraft, so we can track events for days instead of hours. They also don’t have a pilot in them, so first responders can use them in more hazardous conditions, such as miles off shore during the BP oil spill or closer to fires and gas leaks after Katrina. UAS are much easier to network than manned aircraft, because UAS must have a data link send their data to the ground. That makes it easy to connect them to the Internet and have analysts safely outside the disaster zone process the data. NASA and NOAA’s work tracking hurricanes over the eastern Atlantic with a Global Hawk UAS perfectly illustrates why UAS are a great asset for hurricane tracking. The Global Hawk has the range to fly for hours off the western coast of Africa, it doesn’t have a pilot that we need to worry about losing over a storm and its sensors are networked to meteorologists thousands of miles away.

This is why you don’t see much anti-drone activity in Mississippi or on the Gulf Coast. We know we may have lost lives after Katrina because we couldn’t fly UAS after the storm. We know we probably lost property after the BP oil spill because we couldn’t continuously track those oil slicks. The Air Force’s hurricane hunters in Biloxi, Mississippi, are some of the bravest aviators in our Air Force, but we know that not even the hurricane hunters can watch a hurricane from its very beginning as it forms off the African coast.

As someone who spends a great deal of time developing new technologies in the field, how do you see UAS technology evolving? What new roles can they play in the future?

It’s been fascinating to watch the industry develop. I’ve been to every AUVSI convention since 2008. It used to be easy to walk the entire floor and talk to everyone. I don’t think I saw a fifth of the show this year. It was just too big. In the near term, I think we’ll see some segments of the market consolidate, just like we saw in the computer and cell phone industries. I think we’ll settle on a few number of UAS “trucks” that will do most of the work for the commercial industry. That will make it easier for the community to train crews and maintain the air vehicles when we have just dozens of types of air vehicles vice hundreds. It will be like the cell phone industry consolidating down to just iPhones and Androids for their platforms. I think we’ll get down to just a handful of operating systems and maybe just one or two data links, like the computer industry did with Windows and Apple operating systems.

The really interesting UAS growth areas will be in mission packages and “apps.” Right now, we’re mainly flying just video cameras on UAS. That will soon expand to lidar, various radar sensors, hyperspectral sensors that can see in hundreds of colors, sensors that can smell, sensors that can hear. Right here at the Stennis Space Center, Navy oceanographers are working on a lidar system that can map the ocean floor hundreds of feet down from a UAS. Everyone has heard about Amazon Prime Air’s proposal to deliver small packages within 30 minutes, and I think we’ll see local vendors and restaurants adopt that same model. I’ve almost convinced the owner of the world’s best donut shop — Tato-Nuts in Ocean Springs, Mississippi — that he needs to let me order doughnuts over the Internet and fly them to my house vice making me wait in line for them. UAS will also move into both the long-haul air cargo and dangerous delivery missions. FedEx is one of our ASSURE partners, and they’re very interested in unmanned cargo UAS. Since most of the nation’s offshore oil infrastructure is off the Louisiana/Mississippi coasts, we get a lot of calls from ASSURE partners who want to deliver cargo to our offshore rigs. I used to work offshore on oil rig supply boats — trust me, I’d rather see a UAS deliver cargo in a few hours vice sailing in rough seas for a day to do the same job.

There will be a lot of growth in precision agriculture, and ASSURE has a lot of expertise in this field. Mississippi State, Kansas State, North Dakota and North Carolina State are leaders in unmanned precision agriculture. If we can get the cost of UAS sensor coverage down, they will increase crop yields and, more importantly, reduce pollutants in the environment. When coupled with unmanned precision applicators, unmanned sensors hold the promise of letting us spray the plant that needs treatment, vice the entire field. That’s a big deal if you live in a state where 43 percent of the land mass of United States drains through.

What does that future hold for you and UAS? Do you have any other exciting research projects planned? What would you like to do next?

For the immediate future, I hope to just lead the ASSURE team. We’ll hopefully find out that we won in January. We have a lot of work ahead of us if we become the FAA’s new UAS Center of Excellence. They’re plenty of research to be done, but actually some of the most important research isn’t very exciting. We need to work through basic problems, like determining wake separation for UAS, finding out if we need to modify airport signs for UAS, developing a handbook on UAS for small airport operators, determining airworthiness for UAS, helping determine training standards for UAS crew and perhaps our biggest challenge — managing the radio spectrum needed to safely operate UAS. That’s not to say we won’t be working on some pretty exciting projects. The University of North Dakota has some fascinating work proposed to solve the detect-and-avoid problem. Alaska Fairbanks has some great ideas on how to make unmanned aerial firefighting much safer. Mississippi State is working on composite aircraft “skin” that can sense when it’s injured. Embry-Riddle plans to use its NextGen test bed to test how to manage the thousands of UAS we anticipate flying over the U.S. in a few years.

As to my next project — I’m waiting for my youngest son, Andy, to graduate from college. Andy wants to be a UAS entrepreneur and open his own company. I can’t go into details, but he has some interesting ideas about UAS leasing and already has his slogan worked out – “Leave the droning to us.”  I’m trying to convince him not to use the word drone, but it just fits so well.