Unmanned “Unplugged”

Marty Rogers, Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration

Marty Rogers is the director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Last year, the center was named an FAA UAS Test Site and recently was cleared by the FAA to begin flights. Rogers is retired from the U.S. Air Force.

You were recently appointed to lead the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI). Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on, and what this new position entails from a research standpoint?

Our priorities for 2014 are fairly straightforward: Stand up the recently awarded FAA UAS test site; increase our focus on payloads the researchers and scientists need; and focus our available resources on high-latitude research missions or work that will benefit high-latitude science. Right now, much of our energy is pouring into the test site, but we have a very active sciences program and it will continue. To date, all the staff who support the research program have also been working on the test site, but we have several onsite contractors who are embedded with us and we will be jointly staffing to meet the new workload. An interesting by-product of the test site has been increased interest in our sciences program, which until now has accounted for all our missions. With the test site that will change, but the backbone of our program is and will continue to be science and research.

You also help oversee work with the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, which was established as a UAS test site by the FAA last December. How is that work similar/different from research component?

Like most people involved in this industry I wear several hats. I am the director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI), and have overall responsibility for the new UAS test site, the Pan Pacific UAS Test Range Complex. The UAS test site exists to support the factual data and research needed to safely integrate UAS into the National Airspace System.

Our program is different than most simply because we have been flying research missions for over a decade, in fact this is our 13th year of operations. At last year’s AUVSI (ed. note: Unmanned Systems 2013) event in Washington, D.C. I kept hearing the same thing from people we were visiting: “Lots of people talk about flying, you guys actually do it.” That is a huge compliment. The systems, policies and infrastructure that have grown over the years under our science and research program allow the UAS test site to rapidly come on-line and start operations.

 

Your work with ACUASI comes after your career of service in the U.S. Air Force. How did that service prepare you for what you’re doing now?

If I had to sum up how my Air Force career helped prepare me for my current role, I guess it would be exposure to so many aspects of a professional aviation community, and understanding the actual value of aviation to the general public. I am a pilot, and this has helped me personally communicate the benefits of UAS technology to manned pilots who can be doubtful of the technology and benefits. I know there is a large contingent in the UAS community that does not see any real benefit in being a manned aviator in the UAS world, but I can tell you the ability to understand both sides of the equation is highly valuable in managing a large program and trying to articulate both the value and limitations of the technology.

In my discussions with folks I’ve found that manned pilots are either supportive of the technology, usually mentioning their concerns regarding safety, or just plain doubtful of it. I would say it’s roughly 90 percent supportive and 10 percent doubtful. So, additional communication and outreach is absolutely required and maybe we can close that gap a bit more.

ACUASI personnel conduct research missions more than 150 days a year, and some of those missions extend beyond Alaska to include work in Iceland, Chile, South Africa and locations throughout the other 48 states. What helps you decide where to go? What comparative advantages do these different climates provide?

Science and research know very few bounds, and we go where the science is happening. Although we will increase our focus on the high-latitudes, much of the research has direct correlations, even if conducted in non-Arctic locations. A good example is technology and procedures related to oil spills, or hydrocarbon leak-detection. Also, wildlife, search and rescue, glacier and volcano studies, and many other research areas can be conducted basically world-wide. Different climates allow us to hone operational processes, and identify potential improvements in equipment or technology.

The Arctic is a region of extremes where conducting work and research is often difficult. What makes Alaska a unique test site?

Alaska, along with our test site partners Oregon and Hawaii offer a huge diversity in climate and geography. It’s not just hype; flying in Alaska can be a genuine challenge due to climate extremes. This tests not just equipment capabilities, but tests pilots, observers and researchers.

We have designed a multi-rotor UAS in house that is specifically designed for high-latitude operation. Last year a manufacturer of a UAS from the lower 48 came to Alaska for a research project, and the system would not operate because the outside temperature was -10 F. We fly at temps down to -30 F, and this requires equipment that is designed and built for extreme conditions. Because of the increased emphasis on the Arctic, from oil and gas exploration, environmental and wildlife management, and sovereignty concerns, UAS can be a logical tool for more efficient and safer research. But there can never be any confusion regarding where you are flying, and in the Arctic that reach-back for needed resources may be a very long way away.

Your website states you are “working with the end users of data, manufacturers and prospective researchers to safely apply UAS technology when it logically adds value.” Explain to us what that means.

It means that sometimes UAS are not a logical research tool. In my position I deal with a fair amount of hype from manufacturers and people looking to either start or expand an existing business for eventual commercial UAS operations. It’s a concern of mine because too much enthusiasm can be as bad as not enough. We advise people every day, based on our own experiences, when we think UAS are a logical research tool. The fact is that sometimes they will not add benefit, and in fact may not be able to execute a mission as well as a manned aircraft.

As a university we are honest brokers in the community, and are interested in expanding the use of UAS for science and research when it adds value. This position has served us well, and just to make sure there is no misunderstanding, this target moves every day. Either our engineering team or an outside vendor is developing a new payload, or modifying an existing sensor for UAS operations every day. It means our team researches new sensors, and discusses sensor needs with researchers on a continual basis because what did not add value yesterday might add value tomorrow.

I also have one other comment on this, every new technology has cowboys in it, and the tenacity and energy those cowboys have are what drive the technology and industry as a whole, without them we would not be where we are today. What all of us are living in right now is the transition phase from the cowboy perspective to a more mature sense of the technology and community as a whole. A sign of this is a strong industry association, the formalization of the test sites, and in the next year a UAS Center of Excellence. Success now requires a different set of skills than before, and while there will always be a place for the cowboys, most investors are looking for some level of stability in their investment.

 

Operations between ACUASI and UAS Iceland are expected to begin this summer. Collaboration will support arctic science, including glacier studies, volcano monitoring, marine mammal research and environmental observations, and has the potential to support mapping efforts and search and rescue missions. How did this relationship come about? What do you plan to learn?

As I write this a team from UAF is in Iceland conducting certification tests on three new systems, the internally developed high-latitude multi-rotor; a two-meter wingspan, fixed-wing system; and a multi-rotor that can take off and land on water. The relationship is a logical extension of our current research and science work because of Iceland’s climate and geologic characteristics.

We met the president of UAS Iceland, Sigurdur Hrafnsson, at a UAS training course in Belgium just over a year ago, and the dialogue continued with a team from UAF visiting Iceland last year and meeting with the President, Dr. Grimsson, the Icelandic Civil Aviation Authority, Icelandic Coast Guard Aviation Division, several other government agencies, and the leadership of both the University of Iceland and Reykjavík University. The high level of interest in UAS capabilities have led to a formalized relationship, and now expanded operations.

In addition to the sciences and research work, we are now formalizing Iceland’s membership in our UAS test site, and are already working with two companies interested in conducting their initial test operations there. Iceland is a perfectly situated bridge for European companies interested in expanding their market into the U.S. because of ease of access, solid low-cost infrastructure and our ability to rapidly develop and execute flight operations. Adding Iceland to our team has grown the amount of test work available, in effect we have “baked a bigger cake” for our team to share.

This technology is a growing industry and Alaska can be a hub for it. As it continues to develop, how do you foresee it being used by researchers in the future?

The use of UAS by researchers and scientists will continue to grow as both the platforms and sensors become more capable, and when investors see a financial incentive to invest in this technology. You know, airplanes are cool, whether they are manned or unmanned, big or little, fixed or rotor wing, but the real magic is in the combination of the right platform and right payload. Right now the emphasis is on the aircraft, but I hope there is a realization at some point that the sensor package is where real investment and the push are needed now. It’s all about the data.

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?

Our program is set to grow and expand in the coming years, and we plan to grow our fleet of systems especially with an increased long-range capability. We currently have several ScanEagles, two of which we modified last year with a new fuel-injected engine, new avionics and satellite control capability. We flew those systems successfully for more than 40 hours last year in beyond line of sight missions over the Beaufort Sea. We are looking at an investment in the next year of a new beyond-line-of-sight system and may transition away from the ScanEagle system overall and move to a more logistically deployable system that will allow rapid response to remote locations.

To sum it up, we have developed a solid reputation due to the hard work of some really amazing people, and as the new director of the program I am benefitting from their years of dedication and extraordinary abilities. I am optimistic about the future of our program and growth of UAS technology not just in Alaska but worldwide, and that is not hype.