A growing industry that’s expected to be a big job producer is still revving up in Kansas, but educators at Kansas State University Salina are convinced there are immense possibilities for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
The evolution of government rules and regulations is among the holdups, said Mark Blanks, the university’s UAS program manager, but the regulations are changing.
“Things the (Federal Aviation Administration) might have said ‘no’ to are now ‘maybes,’ ” he said.
Once regulations are defined or refined, perhaps as early as December, business gains and product development could mushroom. The economic effect in Kansas is expected to reach $489 million, and 2,500 new jobs are expected to be created by 2017.
“The possibilities here are huge,” Blanks said, referring not only to Kansas, but Salina, where enrollment in UAS courses is doubling every year. Approximately 60 people are majoring in the field at K-State Salina.
“This program is one of the best, if not the best in the country, doing training and research,” Blanks said.
He spoke Thursday to more than 100 who attended a K-State Salina Civic Luncheon.
Top UAS program
The university didn’t offer a class in unmanned systems until 2007, and four years later began offering a bachelor’s degree.
For unmanned aircraft systems education, Blanks said, “This is the top place to come in the nation, if not the world.”
K-State UAS program graduates with bachelor’s degrees who are deployed overseas are earning more than $100,000 a year working in the UAS field, Blanks said. Those working in the United States “are making far more than their peers in manned aviation.”
If you want to earn a bachelor’s degree to be a UAS pilot, Blanks said, you also need to have a private pilot’s license and instrument rating.
Based on the number of tours given to prospective students in recent months, K-State could exceed 60 UAS majors by next fall, said Kurt Barnhart, associate dean of research and engagement.
“It’s not letting up,” he said. “It’s exceeding our expectations.”
Better, cheaper, smaller
Blanks takes no issue with calling the high-tech aircraft drones.
“I have a problem with the connotation of blowing up houses or spying,” he said. “That’s not what we’re about here.”
There is a rapidly growing list of applications.
“We talk about the system, the air vehicle, a ground system and the air link to talk to the vehicle,” Blanks said. Even for the hobbyist, the technology is getting better, smaller and cheaper.
Components that were developed for smartphones can be used in unmanned aircraft systems.
He mentioned quadcopters equipped with cameras and a global positioning system and that thousands are being sold by Amazon.com each month.
Flight times have grown from minutes to an hour, depending on how much you’re willing to spend.
Sensors have moved from point-and-shoot cameras mounted on an aircraft to extremely small gears.
“That’s the trend right now. They’re being miniaturized to go on small aircraft,” Blanks said.
Printing in the field
With three-dimensional printing, an unmanned aircraft can be produced quickly.
“Possibly some day, a soldier could print an aircraft in the field,” Blanks said.
Trends in computer software are “what is really making a difference,” he said.
Farmers can not only scan fields for problems, they can pinpoint areas needing concern. Drones can be used to inspect wind turbines and electric lines.
“For every single industry, there is going to be some kind of application for UAS — air, ground and maritime,” Blanks said. “The biggest is agriculture.”
He said the technology could someday put traditional aerial surveying out of business.
Rules a bane
But rules are still a bane. For a hobbyist flying a small unmanned aircraft lower than 400 feet outside of populated areas within a visible line of sight, there are a lot of possibilities.
Commercial entities need exemptions from existing rules, he said, and getting an exemption can take months.
The Federal Aviation Administration has already changed how it identifies hobby users and a commercial operation.
“As soon as you’re flying over a farming operation, that’s not recreation,” Blanks said.
Regardless, Kansas has a “bright future,” with regard to UAS.
“We have a lot of opportunity here, with a lot of tax revenue and jobs,” Blanks said. “It’s a large percentage of an $82 billion global market.”