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Unmanned in the air

EGCC forms program for flying jobs of the future

August 28, 2011
By PAUL GIANNAMORE - Business editor (pgiannamore@heraldstaronline.com.) , The Herald-Star

MINGO JUNCTION - That hawk wobbling in the wind against the gray sky just might be looking back at you, and pinpointing your position with a GPS and calling in aid to help rescue you, or police officers to arrest you, or guiding you to a break in a cross-country power line you have to repair.

Because that hawk could just be part of an unmanned aircraft system, a part of civilian aviation expected to create thousands of jobs during the next 15 years as the systems find a place in law enforcement, search and rescue, engineering, surveying and countless other business applications that could benefit from an eye in the sky.

Eastern Gateway Communty College is hoping to launch training in unmanned aircraft systems, complete with a hands-on flying component, as soon as January, thanks to partnerships with Williams Aerospace and the Special Tactics and Rescue Training facility, based in a remote area south of Mingo Junction, which specializes in bringing together training, technology, private and educational partners to serve a variety of security training.

Article Photos

EDUCATION PARTNERSHIP — The Williams Aerospace company is making small unmanned aircraft systems for the civilian market for uses ranging from surveillance to search and rescue or utility line patrols. The company and the S.T.A.R.T. security training facility south of Mingo Junction are partnering with Eastern Gateway Community College to launch an unmanned aircraft systems training program. Gateway officials hope the program can grow from learning to fly the craft to maintenance, electronics and more. From left are Tracee Joltes, work force outreach coordinator for Eastern Gateway Community College; Phil Bender, retired Ohio State Highway Patrol aviator who is helping put together the unmanned aircraft system training program for the college; Jeff Williams, founder of Williams Aerospace, the Hawaii-based maker of small unmanned aircraft systems with civilian applications in mind; and Alexander Le Bon, Williams’ chief engineer. - Paul Giannamore

Tracee Joltes, work force outreach coordinator for EGCC, explained that through the efforts of Phil Bender, a retired Ohio State Highway Patrol aviation service pilot, the program is coming together. Representatives of Williams Aerospace, including the founder of the company, Jeff Williams, were on hand at the S.T.A.R.T. facility during the past several days, teaching the future EGCC instructors of unmanned aircraft systems about flying the little birds.

"We're looking for funding right now, and we're working together with partners in the private sector, as always," she said.

Bender said EGCC is one of 30 Ohio community colleges and universities selected as sites for terrorism training under the Ohio Homeland Security Training Alliance. The Eastern Gateway Community College unmanned aerial system training program will be included as a course offered to emergency service professionals.

Beyond that, Joltes said, the hopes are to establish the course to continue to train the next generation of pilots to fly the unmanned aircraft, which are expected to fill a variety of missions in the future.

"It's been in the military and it's moving into the emergency response community. It's a developing market, and there is the potential in the future for billions of dollars worth of products and jobs," she said. "It hasn't even started into the private sector yet. The technology is electronics, and aviation, and maintenance of the aircraft, photoptics, all the things to make this work," Joltes said "As it develops in the future, there will be more realization of the value. The power company can check lines. Railroads can use it. It already is in use by agriculture to check growth patterns."

EGCC is working to develop a viable training regimen with hands-on flight capabilities that can set a standard for private industry as the applications for the unmanned aerial systems develop.

Gateway, she and Bender noted, is the only one of the Ohio colleges with a full certificate to fly the planes, and a training area, to allow it to fly aircraft. In addition, Bender indicated, the FAA is interested in the flights because it's trying to develop standards and regulations for the onslaught of non-military unmanned aircraft systems.

The FAA does not allow civilian companies to operate the unmanned aircraft systems without obtaining a special airworthiness certificate as an experimental category aircraft, but it is limited in scope. Public agencies can obtain the certificate to operate, the FAA explains, meaning any agency that obtains some federal funding.

Going flying

The hangar is a tabletop, holding three of the tiny, 2-pound vehicles that resemble nothing less than a very tiny B-2 flying wing. The cockpit is a backpack full of electronics that accompany standard laptop computer with controlling software, all communicating with the little bird via radio.

The takeoff runway is a person simply launching the little plane when it's ready with the proper toss into the wind. Landing is automated to a predesignated point, gliding in on its belly. The operator also can manually land the craft, if wind or other conditions warrant.

There's a full pre-flight briefing for the pilot, the mission commander, the payload specialist and spotters. Traffic controllers have been notified in advance that the little birds will be flying and their permitted ceiling is about 360 feet for these flights. Bender said there was more extensive filing with the FAA than just a flight plan and a phone call.

A certificate of operation was obtained.

An extensive pre-flight is conducted, with Bender and Alexander Le Bon, chief engineer for Williams Aerospace, running through the setup, tests and preflight checklist, just as would be done for a full-sized airplane.

On this day, the first bird brought out to be launched had an internal problem detected in the preflight checks, so it was sent back inside the classroom at S.T.A.R.T. A second bird was immediately brought out, communications established, the preflight commenced again and the flight launched a few minutes later.

Working with Bender are spotters including Roger Maple, a professional flight instructor and 20-year commercial pilot, currently flying for United Airlines, who is training to be an instructor in an EGCC program.

Little but not toys

Williams, a retired veteran with 24 years in the Navy, along with his wife Leilani, founded the company in Honolulu in 2002, explained the little airplane is set apart from the regular model radio-controlled aircraft in a number of ways.

"Though a lot of components are the same, the major difference is this has a fully autonomous autopilot chip," he said, gesturing to a tiny computer module in the payload and avionics bay at midwing. "It has all the same things you have in an autopilot system in a manned aircraft, plus there is a modem in this module."

The modem allows realtime video to be beamed back to the pilot on the ground, as well as monitors anywhere they're wanted. The vehicle can be equipped with a simple still camera, or a full motion video camera that can look around or up and down by moving around in its mechanical support. There also is a fully digital camera that looks up, down and around through its lens without physical movement, mimicking the work of the human eyeball. Factor in stability correction on the circuitboard and the plane can return smooth video, even while the little bird is fighting a 15 mph wind, as it was Wednesday.

The plane, Williams explained, is all electric, from its powerplant to its circuitry. It's got nearly an hour's worth of flight power packed aboard. The backpack full of control and monitoring electronics is equipped with a portable solar array mat for power.

"So, an RC aircraft is for recreation. This has military, commercial and educational goals with live streaming video of overhead imagery," he said.

The Williams birds also are rugged, made of Kevlar and capable of sustaining belly landings or even flying at speed into a wall with the only damage being to the plastic propeller.

The aircraft communicates with GPS satellites and pinpoints its own location, as well as the location of what it's viewing on its camera. The applications as a result are endless. If a car, for example, has ventured over a hill in a remote area and the little birds are dispatched to look for it, they can find it, circle it, pinpoint its location and, thanks to the GPS coordinates, the emergency responders can head straight to the accident scene.

The uses can be endless, from monitoring landslides to determining the condition of a local road before heavy equipment traverses it.

The little planes themselves fold down the middle and pack right into the backpack with the antenna mast and the control and monitoring system. Communications with the bird, as well as its flight path, are monitored on a laptop screen and are drag-and-drop simple to change.

Bender said though the pilot doesn't climb aboard, the requirements for flying the unmanned vehicles are stringent. Flying one in line of sight, such as was done on the training range, doesn't require a pilot license, but the pilot still needs a background in aviation, and will need to have gone through ground school, passed the airmen's knowledge test and maintain a second-class medical certificate, just like a private pilot-licensed flier. Going beyond line-of-sight flights requires a private pilot license, and if flights are going to be at night, the pilot has to be instrument rated.

EGCC, Joltes said, hopes to be able to fulfill the requirements to establish standards for the civilian unmanned aerial system industry, and to train local residents to take jobs in the industry as it grows in the next decade or so.

The unmanned aircraft industry itself predicts as many as 23,000 jobs could be in place in the next 15 years for this new breed of aviator.

Chicago-native Williams says while he loves having his headquarters in Hawaii, he also sees the potential for establishing engineering and manufacturing in the Midwest.

"If this gets rolling, we would get jobs out here. I know how important it is for small communities here to get jobs going. I'd love to see this area become a major center for unmanned aircraft systems," he said.

 
 

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