Take a few minutes to talk to Mississippi State’s chief research officer and you can see the future—hovering on the not-so-distant horizon.

“What seems like science fiction is often not that far away to world-class researchers,” said David Shaw, the university’s vice president for research and economic development.

“Over the next five to 10 years, we will be part of an aerospace revolution that has the potential to push R&D investment and innovative manufacturing to unprecedented levels—if we get it right,” he explained.

Shaw’s enthusiasm is grounded in the reality that the state of Mississippi is already a leader in the burgeoning multi-billion dollar commercial unmanned flight industry, and Mississippi State University is now at the controls of the Federal Aviation Administration’s new National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

His cautionary note? It won’t be easy.

But Mississippi’s flagship research university has a long and successful record of meeting seemingly insurmountable challenges.

R&D that leads the world

A six-year competitive effort to land the center of excellence was realized last May when the FAA announced the Mississippi State-led Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) will operate the new national center.

It’s central charge? Take advanced research and turn it into FAA rules that work for the agency and industry.
During a summer news conference on campus, state officials lauded MSU’s leadership and research capabilities and their significant impact on economic development in the Magnolia State with the new center of excellence being the latest example.

“Research and development here has led the world in aerospace, automobile manufacturing… and agribusiness,” said Gov. Phil Bryant at the June event, which was held in the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic
Development Park and included a live flight demonstration in the airspace above the university’s R.R. Foil Plant Science Research Center.

“This is a day we should savor and be proud of,” Bryant said.

Mississippi State President Mark E. Keenum thanked the governor and his team, as well as the state’s Congressional delegation, for their efforts to bring the center to the state.

“We are very grateful to Sen. (Thad) Cochran, Sen. (Roger) Wicker, and other members of our Congressional delegation, and to Gov. Bryant and other state leaders, for their help in making the new center a reality,” he said.

Keenum explained that the commercialization of UAS technology will bring many thousands of high-tech jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact across the country, and that Mississippi will be one of the primary beneficiaries.

However, achieving that successfully will “depend on our ability to safely and efficiently introduce large numbers of commercial unmanned vehicles into the nation’s busy airspace. Helping to do just that is a primary goal of this new Center of Excellence.

“It is a sizable challenge, but Mississippi State and our team of 20 research universities and more than 100 government and industry partners selected to operate this program are well equipped to handle it, and we are eager to get to work,” Keenum said.


Intersection of aerospace history and its future

While ASSURE research will take place at the 21 member universities throughout the U.S. and globally, the center’s work will be concentrated at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County to take advantage of airspace over the Gulf of Mexico, in the Mississippi Delta to conduct unmanned precision agriculture research, and around Mississippi State’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory in Starkville.

Mississippi State’s collaborative approach to research and real-world impact are keys to its growing research enterprise, Shaw says.

For example, Raspet has served as a start-up facility for various aerospace companies in the state providing workspace, technical training, and assistance with product development and research over the past decade. These efforts and Mississippi State researchers’ expertise have helped companies such as American Eurocopter, Aurora Flight Science, GE Aerospace and Stark Aerospace establish bases in Mississippi, bringing more than 700 high-tech jobs to the state.

It is one of many success stories in a rich history.

Since its inception in 1948, Raspet has served as a unique university-based laboratory engaged in aeronautics research and development.

Raspet has a global reputation for composites research and has served as an incubation space for multiple composite manufacturers that now have permanent Mississippi homes. Of note, Raspet was home to a team of engineers from Honda working on a revolutionary composite body aircraft with Mississippi State researchers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

More recently, news broke that one of the world’s leading aerospace companies had selected the university as the new home for a major research center.

Extensive media coverage provided the details: The Boeing Company is relocating its stitched resin infused technology efforts to Mississippi State and the university’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory—a significant R&D win for the land-grant institution.

“We are very pleased to see our collaboration with Boeing moving forward,” Shaw said at the time.
“It is a fine example of the many profitable relationships we have fostered that provide opportunities for faculty, staff and students to work with industry to solve problems, create new knowledge and advance manufacturing excellence in the U.S.,” he said.

A multidisciplinary team of MSU faculty members from several departments—including chemistry and engineering’s aerospace, chemical, mechanical, electrical and industrial—will bring world-class expertise in areas related to the new Boeing composites center.

Their work and that collaborative approach are expected to be significant complements to future UAS and other research across a range of disciplines moving forward, Shaw said.

“I am very excited about where we are going with our research enterprise over the next decade, and so much of that is because of the commitment to excellence from our faculty, staff and students,” he said.


What is ASSURE?

In addition to 21 of the world’s top universities, more than 100 of the world’s leading UAS, aerospace and related companies and manufacturers are members of the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence, which operates the FAA’s new National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

The FAA expects the center to explore evolving technological developments related to unmanned aircraft and their uses. Research will also involve the deployment of UAS for emergency response, biofuel and clean fuel technologies, law enforcement activities, and agricultural and environmental monitoring.

The center will coordinate research and development activities with NASA and the departments of defense, homeland security and agriculture, as well as other agencies. Its work will also lead to recommendations on aircraft certification, flight standards and air traffic requirements, and facilitate UAS technology transfer to other civilian and defense agencies.

Led by Mississippi State, ASSURE’s core university partners include Drexel University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kansas State University, Montana State University, New Mexico State University, North Carolina State University, Ohio State University, Oregon State University, University of Alabama-Huntsville, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, University of California-Davis, University of Kansas, University of North Dakota and Wichita State University.

ASSURE affiliate universities include Auburn University, Concordia University, Louisiana Tech University, Tuskegee University, Indiana State University and University of Southampton.

ASSURE is online at ASSUREuas.org.


First round of research underway

ASSURE’s robust research agenda began moving forward in September after approval from the FAA for the initial projects.

Mississippi State researchers and their ASSURE partners are working with regulators, scientists and industry representatives to solve the problems limiting unmanned aircraft usage in the nation’s skies.

The opening round research funding of $5 million appropriated by Congress is tackling the following scope of work:

- Air to air impact of UAS and manned aircraft will model what happens when UAS and manned aircraft collide. Includes computer studies to find out what happens when a UAS gets ingested into a jet engine or impacts the aircraft itself. Wichita State University is the lead institution with support from Ohio State University and Mississippi State. MSU aerospace engineering professors Ratan Jha and Tom Lacy and associate professor Mark Janus are working on this component.

- Air to ground UAS impact uses computer modeling to research what happens when a variety of UAS impact objects on the ground. The University of Alabama-Huntsville is the lead with MSU, the University of Kansas and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University support. Mississippi State faculty include Jha, Lacy, senior flight engineer Calvin Walker, and agricultural and biological engineering assistant research professor Raj Prabhu and associate professors Lakiesha Williams and Jun Liao.

- Airworthiness standards validation will test industry-developed UAS airworthiness standards to determine if they make UAS safer. Kansas State University is the lead with support from the University of North Dakota and Wichita State.

- UAS maintenance standards development will develop training and certification standards for UAS maintenance and UAS maintenance personnel. Kansas State is the lead with Embry-Riddle and Montana State University support.

- Beyond visual line of sight procedures will research methods to allow safe flight beyond visual line of sight conditions using proven safety methods, such as NASA Ames’s unmanned traffic management system. North Dakota and New Mexico State University are working on this facet.

- Surveillance criticality will research if detect-and-avoid technology used for manned aircraft can be used in unmanned aircraft. Given that unmanned vehicles do not have a crew on board to repair or reset navigation aids, this research will investigate what happens if the UAS loses its detect-and-avoid systems. North Carolina State is the lead with Mississippi State, Embry-Riddle, North Dakota and Oregon State support. Jha, Walker and electrical and computer engineering associate professor J.W. Bruce are working on this problem.

- Human factors will research the unique differences in human factors—ground station layout, information displays and emergency actions—between manned and unmanned aircraft. This research will also address training impacts for pilots and visual observers of improved human machine interfaces. Drexel University is the lead with Embry-Riddle, Ohio State and New Mexico State support.

According to ASSURE’s executive director at MSU James Poss, this research will maximize the potential of commercial unmanned systems with minimal changes to the current system regulating manned aircraft.

“These projects will help us provide the research the FAA needs to write the rules to get UAS flying in the National Airspace System,” the retired U.S. Air Force major general explained.

“The ASSURE team will do well on this research because we know UAS and, more importantly, we know the FAA. With over 100 corporate partners in ASSURE, we also know the industry very well,” Poss said.

The use of unmanned air systems in non-conflict situations is growing with applications well suited for natural disaster response, humanitarian relief efforts, environmental impact assessment and precision agriculture.

“The UAS market is going to be huge—in many ways it will change the way we live. However, we need research like this to make sure we enable this market safely,” Poss said.


Bottom line

A recent report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International asserts that the domestic UAS market is projected to create more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade after FAA integration is complete.

What about the impact in Mississippi? According to AUVSI, the UAS industry could create more than 1,200 jobs and approximately $973 million in economic impact in the state during the same period.

“As you can see,” Shaw said during the June news conference on campus, “this is a very big deal.

“While we are proud of our role in this project, none of it would be possible without the incredible team that comprises ASSURE, as well as the support of our state and federal leaders. This was truly a collaborative effort throughout the entire process, and we expect that solid foundation to lead to greater success moving forward,” he told the standing room only crowd.

Looking to the future, Shaw is confident that the sky’s the limit to what Mississippi State’s researchers can achieve as this new industry takes flight.

Just don’t call ‘em drones.

Story by Jim Laird | Illustrations by Eric Abbott | Video by David Garraway