The dean of Montana State University-Northern’s College of Technology said Thursday that a long road is ahead in the process, but Northern is stepping into what could be one of the major growth industries in the near future.
Northern signed an agreement with three other institutions Wednesday to create a research and testing center for unmanned aerial systems, or drones.
Dean Greg Kegel said Thursday afternoon that extensive work has been conducted on drones, now primarily used in military applications.
“They’re developing technology … that’s just mind-boggling,” he said.
Northern signed an agreement Wednesday with Mississippi State University, Montana State University in Bozeman and Rocky Mountain College in Billings to research the use of drones. The plan is to use the vast military operations area, or MOA, in Montana to research and test aerial drones.
Kegel said the agreement Wednesday is just the beginning. While Montana has a large MOA with relatively low use compared to most areas of the country, the next steps will be to receive permission from the U.S. military and from the Federal Aviation Administration to use the MOA for research on the drones.
“Where we’re at is trying to get permission to fly them,” Kegel said.
A myriad of potential uses
Kegel said the variety of applications of drones for non-military uses is enormous.
The computerization and technology developed for the drones allow uses not even dreamed of even a few years ago, Kegel said.
The drones could be used to patrol — or check — the northern U.S. border, monitor weather, and assist in meteorology research, forestry applications — such as checking pine beetle infestations — and monitoring of agricultural fields to tell farmers where and when to make surgical applications of fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides.
Kegel said — if the flight were allowed — GPS and GIS information could be used to set a drone to fly from Havre to Great Falls following the exact middle of U.S. Highway 87, following the contours of the land to fly at a specified distance above the ground while doing so, then turn around and fly back on the exact same route.
Many companies are looking at implementing that technology, and Montana could be in the forefront of that wave, he said.
“There’s an industry here,” Kegel said.
Creating the testing center
The problem is, the place to do the research and testing does not exist. Kegel said that now, Federal Aviation Administration regulations do not allow flying the drones in most airspace. Although there are many companies that want to work in the industry, they have no place to fly them.
That leads to Montana. With a relatively underused MOA, the universities hope to receive permission to start researching and testing the drones.
Kegel said Northern would be the administrative arm of the center, along with doing research on some aspects including the production of biofuels for the drones. The engineering department at MSU would be doing the majority of the research, with the accredited programs at Rocky Mountain handling the aviation aspect.
One next step is finding industry partners and other institutions to work on the project. Kegel said state Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, the co-director for the research center, is working on that. The search for new partners includes working to bring the University of Montana system into the research, he said.
Applying for permission
Before any testing can be done, however, the institutions have to be able to fly the drones.
Kegel said the research center will apply to the military for permission to test the drones in the Montana MOA, and to the FAA for permission to conduct the tests.
He said the airspace is ideal for the testing — along with comparatively low usage, the variety of mountains, plains, rivers lakes and gorges, and the weather extremes will make it well-suited for testing.
Zinke said Thursday morning that he wants to use that asset as one of Montana’s main commodities. After decades of Montana shipping its resources — coal, metals, timber, agricultural products — out of state, he said, he wants to utilize airspace as a commodity, bringing companies, jobs and revenue to the state.
“This is the Big Sky Country,” Zinke added.
Kegel added that having Zinke involved will help. A 23-year veteran of the U.S. Navy SEALS, retiring as a commander in the special forces, Zinke’s knowledge — including of drone aircraft — and contacts are a major asset, Kegel said.
“He’s got the expertise,” Kegel said. “That’s what’s making this happen.”
Further down the road
Kegel said creating a drone testing center could bring economic benefits to the area, including industries — and jobs — to help support the production and testing of the drones.
It could lead to further developments later on, he said.
Part of the problems with the drones is figuring out how to integrate them into commercial airspace. Kegel said the transition of working drones in without causing complications and crashes with manned aircraft will have to be worked out.
That could involve a stepped-up testing center. Kegel said Northern representatives have been meeting with institutions — including Mississippi State University, a partner in Wednesday’s agreement — and the John C. Stennis Space Center to talk about creating a center to conduct that research.
A major next step is to apply for a grant to pay for a feasibility study for that project. Kegel said once a feasibility study is completed, the next step would be to ask the FAA to include the research project as a Center of Excellence to research, study and monitor the issue.
The FAA has created eight centers of excellence since Congress authorized them in 1990. Universities and higher education institutions partner with representatives in industry to conduct research and testing in a variety of areas in the centers of excellence.