Drones are here to stay. Academia is helping make that safe

How we’re working with universities on the future of the national airspace

“Little drones, big drones and crewed aviation —  the whole airspace ecosystem needs to be shared,” said Mike Dubois, Air Traffic Systems technical program manager for RI&S. “It’s a national resource. Integrating these new entrants safely, securely and efficiently is something we at RI&S are actively working towards.”

RI&S is lending college researchers several of its products, including systems for air traffic management, weather prediction, cybersecurity and mobile radar. The equipment helps them conduct the research and development that is fundamental to innovation.

Sharing such sophisticated equipment and engineering resources with universities enables fundamental research, development and innovation in academia. It’s also helping to leverage existing knowledge of the piloted environment and apply it to the uncrewed environment.

For example, researchers from Stony Brook University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Virginia Tech and Hampton University have used RI&S’ Skyler radar to capture critical data in low-altitude surveillance, precision weather observation and the tracking of small unmanned aircraft systems.

Purdue University researchers used the same radar to observe severe storms. Rather than going with the typical parabolic-dish Doppler radar, they chose Skyler, which uses an active electronically scanned array, to provide faster and more accurate data.

“Skyler is definitely meeting the need for getting rapid scan polar metric updates in supercells in a way that no previous mobile radar has before,” said Dr. Robin Tanamachi, assistant professor at Purdue. “We’re just not getting data like that from the operational radar network that the National Weather Service operates.”

“Little drones, big drones, crewed and uncrewed, the whole airspace ecosystem needs to be shared,” 

Mike Dubois, Raytheon Intelligence & Space Air Traffic Systems 

Safely integrating uncrewed aircraft into our national airspace has been a top priority for the Federal Aviation Administration. RI&S is collaborating with Virginia Tech, a FAA-designated UAS test site, to advance Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations supporting uncrewed aircraft systems integration into the National Airspace System.  

“Virginia Tech is well positioned to test the Skyler radar in a mixed environment—crewed and uncrewed aircraft systems,” explained Kip Spurio, Air Traffic Systems technical director for RI&S. “Their assessment is validating its capabilities to safely further this ecosystem.”

Spurio said that FAA-funding is important for this type of applied research.

“The FAA establishes the rules based on results such as those from this research; ensuring they continue to safeguard the NAS,” he said.

Partnering with Hampton University has reaped benefits for both the school and RI&S, Spurio said.

“Providing state of the art assets allows their students to conduct cutting edge research,” he said. “We hopefully, get the benefit of recruiting students that have hands on experience in a sought-after industry.”

Long-term, collaborative partnerships with various universities not only help create a more diverse workforce, Dubois said. They lead to innovation, while giving the faculty and students hands-on work experience.

“The students want to be contributors in this industry,” Dubois said. “The students I’ve had the opportunity to work with are willing to move heaven and earth to make a difference and ensure drones can safely be integrated into all airspaces.”