Humans made their first forays into the sky with kites. Gliders, hot-air balloons, and airships were followed by the Wright brothers' flight of 1903, the mass production of helicopters in the 1950s, and then the first jet airplanes.
Today, a new type of craft is taking to the air. Known by many names—drones, remotely piloted vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and radio-control aircraft—these new machines can be smaller than a model airplane or have a wingspan as large as a Boeing 737's.
Only six elite test sites in the U.S. are sorting out the issues to integrate unmanned aircraft into the airspace—and Virginia Tech is leading one of them.
Like most test pilots, Kevin Kochersberger expects the unexpected.
A research associate professor in the College of Engineering, Kochersberger was chosen by the First Flight Centennial Commission for a 2003 re-enactment of the Wright brothers' historic adventure at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
His task was to fly a replica 1903 Wright Flyer and land it in front 35,000 attendees, including then-President George W. Bush and actor and pilot John Travolta.
"I had mentally made that flight a thousand times," Kochersberger said. "I thought it would be routine. It wasn't until I got in the plane, looked up, and saw thousands of people surrounding me in a circle that was about 800 feet in diameter [that] I thought, 'What other pilot ever had to get off the ground and land again in 600 feet?'"
Fast-forward more than 10 years, and Kochersberger again found himself poring over the last-second details of a test flight.
The setting was a remote section along the Roanoke River. No packed grandstands here. No noise, no power. Just Kochersberger's flight team from the Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems, which is a research arm of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and the College of Engineering.
As with the First Flight Centennial, the aircraft was rare, but it was no replica of a treasured antique. It was an unmanned 250-pound helicopter.
Equipped with cameras—provided by industry partner American Aerospace Advisors Inc.—that detect ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelengths, the autonomous aircraft was charged with helping its flight crew of mechanical engineering students learn whether useful visual data from five acres of tobacco could be acquired.
Agriculture is fertile ground for the unmanned aerial vehicles industry, and the flight was Virginia Tech's first under the auspices of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, a collaboration led by the university and academic and industry partners with a goal to safely develop unmanned aircraft systems.
The chopper rose, and the autopilot was activated. Infrared, long-wave infrared, and ultraviolet cameras whirred to life.
"I don't always sleep well the night before a flight operation, especially one in a remote location with no power, but absolutely nothing went wrong," Kochersberger said. "The helicopter started, the flight control system worked, we didn't have wind issues, the images were all taken, [and] the exposures were all correct. All of the systems we rely on, every one, worked perfectly. That's because our students are as good at unmanned flight operations as any team from any large corporation out there."
Unmanned aircraft operations come naturally to Virginia Tech's cadre of experts. Their crowning moment arrived in December 2013 when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) selected Virginia Tech to operate one of six unmanned aircraft systems research and test sites across the country.
The proposal, spearheaded by Jon Greene, interim director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and an associate director of the university's Institute for Critical Technologies and Applied Science, was picked after a rigorous 10-month selection process involving 25 proposals from 24 states.
With plans for the University of Maryland to join the effort, university leaders in Blacksburg, along with partners at Rutgers University in New Jersey, welcomed the FAA's decision.
"Integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace is a great responsibility, one that our faculty members and government, university, and industry partners take very seriously. We are ready to meet this challenge," said Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger. "We are convinced that Virginia, teamed with New Jersey and Maryland, is poised to make the mid-Atlantic region the leader in unmanned aircraft system research, development, testing and evaluation, and manufacturing. I'm proud of our faculty … for providing vital expertise in autonomous systems."
Sending unmanned aircraft into the national airspace is a painstaking process. The congressionally mandated test sites will help pioneer rules to safely introduce unmanned aircraft to the skies. The FAA has until 2015 to develop regulations aimed at ameliorating safety and privacy concerns.
Much is at stake. Although Virginia Tech receives no federal funding for the effort, introducing unmanned aerial vehicles to U.S. skies could add more than $13.6 billion to the national economy by the end of the decade, with totals reaching as high as $82.1 billion by 2025, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Moreover, the association ranks Virginia eighth among states with the most to gain from unmanned aircraft systems. By 2017, unmanned aircraft systems-related work is expected to inject $463 million into the commonwealth's economy, produce $4.47 million in additional tax revenue, and add more than 2,300 jobs.
In a recent economic study, the Virginia Department of Aviation, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the Center for Innovative Technology, and Virginia Tech concluded that Virginia is well positioned to meet the needs of unmanned aircraft manufacturers because of the commonwealth's manufacturing capacity and because 300,000 people already work in related fields.
"Virginia already has a ready-made workforce for technology development in unmanned vehicles systems," said Jennifer Shand, senior economic development specialist with the Office of Economic Development, part of Virginia Tech's Outreach and International Affairs.
In addition to workforce expertise, the mid-Atlantic region contains both uncongested and restricted airspace, land and water terrain, and access to both sea-level and high altitudes.
Even before Virginia Tech received the nod from the FAA, the commonwealth was determined to capitalize on the unmanned aerial systems industry, pledging more than $2.6 million over three years in Federal Action Contingency Trust (FACT) funds to Virginia Tech to operate a test site. The fund was created by the Virginia General Assembly in 2012 to soften the blow of federal budget cuts due to sequestration. Many of the partnership team members are concentrated in areas that were stunned by mandatory cuts to the Department of Defense.
"We are creating technologies that could transform transportation, agriculture, emergency response—a wide variety of activities," said Craig Woolsey, an associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering with the College of Engineering and the director of the Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems. "When people realize what they will gain through autonomous technology, we are going to see a drastic paradigm shift in the way we approach these activities. As happened with cellular devices, new industries will crop up, [and] new infrastructure needs will evolve. The economic impact will be enormous."
As for the technology itself, partnership members expect that unmanned aircraft will be useful for pipeline inspections, search-and-rescue missions, disaster response, and wildlife management. Creativity will no doubt lead to more novel applications.
For example, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researchers David Schmale, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, and Boris Vinatzer, an associate professor and geneticist, are part of an international team running DNA analyses on millions of microbes in raindrops, many of them captured by unmanned aerial vehicles from the clouds themselves.
Meanwhile, the news is filled with stories about businesses that want to find ways to capitalize on the technology, whether to ship merchandise or even deliver pizzas. If commerce ever comes to those uses, safety hurdles must be overcome.
"With our partners, we firmly believe we can introduce this new technology the right way," Greene said. "Separately, the team members have flown unmanned aircraft systems for thousands of hours, and now we have joined together to conduct unmanned aircraft systems research, development, and test and evaluation activities."
The partnership is crafting its next set of operations and has plans to continue with simple, low-risk testing until there is confidence in its procedures and processes, Greene said.
"Once the partnership and the FAA are convinced it is time to move to more- complex operations with larger, faster, and higher-flying aircraft, we will move forward," Greene said. "Our mantra will be that whatever happens, we want to make sure that it is at least as safe as the manned aircraft operations that are already occurring in the National Airspace System.
"By February 2017, we expect that the small UAVs rules will be on the books and will permit some use of small UAVs—probably limited to 55 pounds or less—for commercial purposes," Greene said. "There could be hundreds, even thousands, of UAVs in the skies at that point."
Drones may be unmanned, but it's safe to say that even the Wright brothers would be intrigued by this next frontier in flight.