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Northern, FAA may form deal to test drones

 

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Montana State University-Northern is looking to start a national-level testing and education center that could bring hundreds — or more — new jobs to the area, its chancellor said Thursday.

"It's huge, it could be huge," Frank Trocki said.

No r t h e r n i s wo r k i n g wi t h Mississippi State University, which is looking to use unmanned aircraft for weather testing, and the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to try to set up a Federal Aviation Administration Center of Excellence.

The center would research using unmanned drone aircraft in commercial airspace. Trocki said he will meet with the FAA to finalize the format of a feasibility study for the project, which he expects to be complete within six months.

If the feasibility study comes back favorably, it will be just in time for Montana's congressional delegation to work to find authorization and funding for it next year, he said.

The FAA issued a report in 1991 addressing the need for centers of excellence, and since then has established a variety of those centers addressing different needs in the aviation field. The centers always are tied to a college or university.

Unmanned aircraft is one of the latest areas the FAA is investigating.

The unmanned drones are used extensively by the military, and Trocki said they have countless applications for which they could be used in nonmilitary situations if they can be incorporated into flying through commercial airspace.

"The FAA needs to figure out how this could happen, as well as do a variety of testing," Trocki said.

He met with major players in the effort in Whitefish Monday and Tuesday, including representatives of Mississippi State, the Stennis Space Center, Rocky Mountain College from Billings, Montana State University in Bozeman, and aides to U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

Trocki said the Montana, along with Mississippi, senators have been the point people in bringing a Center of Excellence to Havre.

"We cannot do this without Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Max Baucus," Trocki said.

The senators said they are in strong support of the proposal.

"When it comes to strengthening our national security and expanding opportunities in rural Montana, all options should be on the table — especially if they create jobs and boost Montana's economy," Tester said Thursday.

Baucus ' spoke spe r s on, Carolyn Bunce, said Thursday the senator is looking forward to learning more about the project and what he can do to help.

"Max is committed to bringing more and more good-paying jobs to Montana, and this project looks like it may do just that," Bunce said.

Trocki said the center could bring many more jobs to the area than just those working at the center itself. A variety of businesses are interested in the work that would be done there.

The lengthy list of businesses that want to be involved include Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman, he said.

"Initially, it could be a few hundred, I believe, but the involvement of these corporations could do much more," Trocki said.

Trocki said the FAA is interes ted in a nor th-cent ral Montana location for a variety of reasons, including the nature of the Military Operations Airspace in the area.

The MOA is a very large geographic area, with relatively few private and commercial planes flying through it, he said.

Another advantage is a comparatively low number of radio frequencies used in the MOA.

The wide variety of climate conditions, from 40-below-zero in the winter to 110-above in the summer and rain, snow, sleet hail and wind, also make the region an excellent testing area.

He said the unmanned drones could be used for a variety of purposes if they can be brought into regular use in commercial airspace. That ranges from data collection to monitoring and fighting fires without risk to human life.

Trocki said that, with modern technology, unmanned drones could be used to monitor crops so farmers would know if they have an insect infestation or whether they need to add more fertilizer.

Other applications could range from wildlife management to use by the U.S. Border Patrol, he said.

Another advantage Northern has is the universities and colleges in the area. Centers of Excellence, which have a dual purpose of conducting research and also educating people in the field of transportation and aviation.

As Northern has two campuses — the Havre campus and the Lewistown campus — within close reach of an airport, that makes Havre's university a good candidate, Trocki said.

Ano the r a d vanta ge i s Northern's expertise in technical fields, as well as its research into using oilseed crops to produce biodiesel and jet fuel, he added.

"These birds, 60 (percent) to 75 percent of them use internal combustion engines," Trocki said.

The center could lead to increasing partnerships with other Montana colleges and universities, he added. That could range from the engineering programs at MSU working with the center to Rocky Mountain College training pilots for the drones.

Trocki added that, while the flying is done at a desk using a joystick and panel of controls, the pilot sees and responds exactly as a pilot in a cockpit does.

"It will be a great partnership among universities and colleges in Montana," he said.

 
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