Mississippi State University's Raspet Research Laboratory Tests Drone and Aircraft Collision

July 5, 2016

Dallas Brooks
Director Raspet Flight Research Laboratory
ASSURE Associate Director
Story written by Carl Smith, The Dispatch

Since computer models and data simulations only go so far to predict real world events, Mississippi State University researchers are preparing to shoot drones from an air cannon into the turning blades of an active jet engine and other common aircraft parts. 

Dallas Brooks, the director of Mississippi State University's Raspet Flight Research Laboratory, who also serves as the associate director of research of the MSU-led Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) outlined such upcoming drone research projects at the Mississippi Airports Association annual conference Wednesday. He said the university's leadership position within the research coalition keeps it poised to guide the development of unmanned aircraft technology into the future. 

Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration announced MSU would lead the partnership between the government, numerous universities and industries to identify issues and develop policies as drones become more prominent in everyday life.  

Studying drones and their impact in the sky is important, he said, since unmanned aircraft tend to work at an altitude below 500 feet. 

"It's one of the most unique aviation environments," Brooks said. "Other than climbing out of or arriving at an airport, that's generally the space that has folks that are very specialized in what they do. That might be crop sprayers, power line inspectors, medical helicopters. The introduction of drones into this environment without a high degree of coordination obviously presents an issue. The need to evaluate safety issues, equipment, the training the pilots need and the rules of the road ... are all absolute critical areas we're spending quite a bit of time on." 

MSU has partnered with other universities to test drones' literal impact in the world. Two major research projects garnering attention, Brooks said, are on airborne and ground collisions -- when drones hit things. 

In-flight impacts are an obvious fear for aviators, but runaway drones can also pose a threat to bystanders on the ground, he said. 

While researchers are studying a wide array of options to mitigate injuries -- from blade guards and cages that encapsulate smaller models to utilizing multiple batteries of smaller sizes that spread out a drone's mass -- understanding in-air incidents could lead to the greatest steps forward in safety, Brooks said. 

"Simulation only takes you so far. After a while, you have to hit something to really find out," he said. "The data, like with bird-strike research of the past, will give us a good picture of not what it could do, but what it probably will do." 

Other MSU-led research projects will include assisting the FAA to develop noise certification standards, expanding web-based automated flight planning and monitoring tools and developing standards, procedures and safety strategies for analyzing the nation's electrical infrastructure with drones.  

"In terms of taxpayer value, the center of excellence is a fantastic model," Brooks said. "In terms of the ability of industry to actually be part of the research that's going to be used to support regulatory decisions in the future, it's another great value. As opposed to sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a decision, they can help shape those decisions with the best technology and understanding available." 

Including MSU, 22 research institutions comprise ASSURE. Members are core to three FAA UAS test sites, lead four FAA research centers, have seven airfields and boast a UAS fleet of 340.  

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International previously projected the growing drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade after the FAA allows normal commercial operations.

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch.
Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch