On an ordinary Monday morning, most college students sit droopy-eyed in lecture halls, chugging coffee and scribbling notes while a professor lectures in front of a PowerPoint presentation.
But a handful of students at one Middle Georgia campus spent a recent Monday gathered around a rocket-shaped device that is often used in classified, groundbreaking projects — and can fly without an onboard pilot.
Most people would call the device a drone. Professionals prefer to call it an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV. But at Middle Georgia College’s aviation campus, most refer to this particular UAV as PTERA — the first drone of its type that was tested in the United States. Students and faculty tested PTERA under the direction of NASA.
“That hasn’t been done to our knowledge,” said Chad Dennis, a program coordinator with the Georgia Centers of Innovation for Aerospace, with an office on Middle Georgia College’s Eastman campus.
UAVs are a rarity on college campuses, but they are becoming more common at Middle Georgia College and, if Dennis has his way, they will soon play a bigger academic role. Dennis has spent the past year developing a UAV degree program — specifically an Unmanned Aerial Certification program. If approved by the Board of Regents, the new Middle Georgia State College would be one of few U.S. institutions that offer a UAV program. Middle Georgia State College will form in January with the consolidation of Middle Georgia College and Macon State College.
Additionally, Dennis is working to position Georgia as one of six UAV test sites in the nation. In January, the Federal Aviation Administration established regulations that would allow UAVs to fly commercially by 2015. But to fly commercially, the machines need to be tested. So, the FAA decided it needs six test sites, and Dennis wants to make sure Georgia is one of them.
And, in a field near the tiny downtown of Eastman in Dodge County, the future Middle Georgia State College’s aviation campus would be the Georgia headquarters for that national test site.
“The newest technology, tested by us,” he said.
In December, Middle Georgia College snagged a certificate of authorization from the FAA to fly and test a UAV called the Twin Star II. It’s a significant achievement as FAA authorizations are not easy to obtain. It’s the college’s second one for UAV technology, with three more expected to be approved by May. There are only 400 such authorizations in the nation.
Students can still build and work on UAVs without an authorization. They can fly them while tethered, but they cannot truly test the UAV’s “brain” — a tiny box the size of an iPhone that drives the machine while the human pilot stands on the ground — without the green light from the FAA.
That green light is what Dennis spends much of his time trying to procure. It’s a lengthy process. Students and teachers simulate a UAV flight, performing the simulated tests over and over until all risks are ruled out. When Dennis applies for an FAA authorization, he submits an application that’s an average of 25 pages, complete with links to more information.
“It explains to them every step of the procedure,” he said, “all the way down to if somebody gets snakebit out there, this is how we’re going to handle it.”
Administrators are quick to explain that many think of UAVs as military tools. But they are beginning to be used for much more, such as NASA projects.
When the college tested PTERA in July, it relayed its findings to NASA, which wanted to know whether PTERA was a viable aircraft. The space center is very interested in robotic technology as a means to push the boundaries of space exploration, Dennis said.
Students, faculty and staff built PTERA — through a partnership with Area-I, a Georgia-based UAV research and development company — and tested it at the Heart of Georgia Regional Airport. They flew it using a remote control, proving it can fly better than anticipated. During the next phase of testing, students and teachers will allow the device to start flying itself.
With its newest authorization, the college hopes to assist in agricultural breakthroughs. Students will hover over local fields using a UAV, which will scan each crop to determine whether it needs to be sprayed. Instead of spraying the entire field, farmers can apply pesticides to the plants that need it, saving time and money. It’s an example of how the college hopes to boost agriculture through UAV technology.
“A UAV could get right on top of the crops … imaging the plants and determining which ones need spraying,” Dennis said. “Farmers are very excited about this project.”
But the UAV projects don’t come cheap, and they receive no school funds from tuition dollars. But they do get money from companies that contract with them, as well as grants from organizations, such as the Georgia Centers of Innovation for Aerospace. The agriculture project landed a few thousand dollars from the state peanut and cotton commissions, which are interested in the results. The local development authority and farmers also are interested in offering support, Dennis said.
“Without them … there wouldn’t be anyway we could do it,” he said. “Everybody’s really coming to the table. … Farmers are really excited about this project.”
Organizations that want to test UAVs often turn to outside sources, such as Middle Georgia College’s program. The UAV tests not only benefit organizations, such as NASA and farms, but they also give students practical experience, Dennis said.
When Michael Mendez moved to Georgia from New York, he switched from studying music to his newfound love of helicopters. Soon, he accepted an internship working with UAVs on Middle Georgia College’s campus. Now, the junior plans to make a career out of UAV assembling and testing.
“I’ve never been involved in anything so intricate,” he said. “This is a whole new world for me. I’m all about it. … I can’t get enough of it, really.”
To read this story in The Telegraph click here.