Whitefish resident and state senator Ryan Zinke thinks Montana is the right place to begin using “drone” unmanned aircraft technology for non-military purposes.
Following a year of coordination and organizing, several selected academic and research institutions within Montana have signed a collaborative agreement with Mississippi State University to jointly create an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Center of Excellence.
Representatives from Montana State University-Bozeman, Montana State University-Northern and Rocky Mountain College-Billings signed the agreement at a kick-off ceremony in Bozeman on Dec. 1. Representatives from the UAS industry, Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s Office of Economic Development, Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and Rep. Denny Rehberg were also in attendance.
UAS, also known as drone aircraft, have gained attention in recent years for their military use overseas and have emerged as a growing multi-billion dollar industry.
“UAS will transition from today’s military-centric role to important civilian applications, such as research, farming and forest management,” said Zinke, a co-director of the project. “UAS are ideal tools for conducting a vast array activities that are currently done by more expensive methods, such as satellite imagery or manned aircraft.”
Examples include using spectrum analysis equipment to look at light reflecting off plants — agricultural crops or forests — to detect insect impacts or the need for watering or fertilizer. Farmers could save money by focusing efforts on smaller crop areas, Zinke said.
The same technology could be used to analyze snow depth, which would help electric companies more accurately assess future hydropower output and improve flooding forecasts. Drone aircraft could provide better information than satellites during cloudy days and beneath smoke from wildfires, helping fire crews pin down hot spots. Drone aircraft could also provide cell-phone coverage in mountainous or remote locations where cell phones don’t work, Zinke said.
Montana has a unique opportunity to leverage its enormous airspace and become a hub of research, testing and development in an emerging industry, Zinke said.
“We’re at the forefront of change in aviation technology with enormous potential to create the kinds of jobs we need in Montana,” he said.
Flying drones outside of military-restricted airspace is a challenge and is tightly controlled by the FAA.
“We want to be part of the discussion on how to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System without impacting general aviation,” Zinke said. “Montana contains the largest military operations airspace in the Lower 48 and is unique in having such diversity in climate, terrain and vegetation. Montana’s airspace is the perfect environment to research how to safely integrate UAS with commercial and private air traffic.”
Two sites near Lewistown could be used to base the project, Zinke said. The first test flight could occur near Lewistown by late summer next year. Initial testing could involve crop analysis or tracking cattle.
Montana State University-Northern has a satellite campus next to the Lewistown city airport, and the Western Transportation Institute has a facility and test track nearby. The city airport sees little activity now, Zinke noted, adding that it was used to base B-17 bombers during World War II.
The collaboration with Mississippi State University combines the assets of world-class programs in maritime and Gulf Coast research with MSU-Northern’s biofuel program, Rocky Mountain College’s accredited aviation program, and MSU-Bozeman’s acclaimed Engineering Department. Together, the members of the project represent more than $400 million in research capability.
“This project combines the unique talents and capabilities of different academic and research institutions to form an unequaled UAS Center of Excellence partnership,” said MSU-Northern’s Dean of Technology, Greg Kegel, whose college will be in charge of administration and testing.
The goal of the project over the next few months will be to add industry and other institutions to the partnership and launch the first drone aircraft in summer 2011. Great Falls, Havre, Lewistown and Glasgow also are being considered as launching locations for the drones.
“I think we all are excited about the future of UAS in Montana and look forward to putting our resources and talents to work,” Zinke said.