Tuesday, October 23 , 2018, 11:26 am | Fair 67º

 
 
 
 

CSU Channel Islands Receives Gift of Two Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The gift of two unmanned aerial vehicles from Northrop Grumman will help CSU Channel Islands students and faculty and reach new heights in educational exploration.

Northrop Grumman recently donated two Inventus-class unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the university. The UAVs were built in 2003 as test platforms for military defense and homeland security operations, but their uses can extend to the civil and commercial sectors, including mapping, data collection, wildfire management, aerial photography, search and rescue, wildlife and agriculture monitoring, and dozens of other applications.

The six-foot, fixed-wing UAVs serve as host airframes for the integration and testing of a variety of sensors and receivers, and boast a maximum flight time of 30 hours, a range of 2,000 miles, an altitude of 10,000 feet, and a top speed of 140 miles per hour.

Faculty, staff and students are excitedly exploring their potential uses. Faculty in CI’s Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Science & Resource Management Programs hope to use UAVs for faculty/student research to monitor habitats, watersheds, wildlife populations and environmental changes, as well as in research partnerships with groups like NOAA and the National Park Service. The UAVs are also expected to play an important role in disciplines like applied physics, computer science, mathematics, and in engineering-based programs that the campus hopes to develop in the future.

“We are grateful to Northrop Grumman for providing us with an invaluable tool for expanding our educational, research and community partnership capabilities,” said Karen Carey, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, Arts & Sciences. “An exciting industry is rising in Ventura County around unmanned aerial systems. CI is exploring ways to support this industry, incorporate UAS into faculty research and teaching, and prepare students for opportunities in this promising field. This gift truly encourages our faculty and students to ‘reach for the sky.’”

The gift emerged from an encounter between a Northrop Grumman engineer and three CI employees at one of the monthly meetings of the Channel Islands Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International held on CI’s campus. Mark Mendenhall, a principal engineer at Northrop Grumman in Camarillo and founding member of the AUVSI chapter, was introduced to CI Director of Major Gifts Carrick DeHart, Senior Research Officer Jason Miller, and math and computer science instructor Ron Rieger, who were looking to expand UAV opportunities for CI students.

Mendenhall had been seeking a way to honor the memory of Charlie Evans (1944-2010), a mentor and colleague who led Northrop Grumman’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) team in Camarillo from 2000 until his retirement in 2007. When Mendenhall learned that CI was interested in creating an unmanned systems curriculum, he recognized an ideal opportunity to commemorate Evans and his legacy.

“Charlie instilled a culture of innovation across our engineering teams, and he often challenged us to find ways to assist others who were exploring ideas and concepts that could be drawn from in the future,” Mendenhall said. “Charlie’s team ended up creating a handful of transformative technology innovations that eventually formed the basis for some of our larger UAS solutions, including the MQ-4C Triton UAS (a surveillance aircraft used by the U.S. Navy). Our hopes are that the two sUAS aircraft donated to CI’s emerging unmanned system engineering efforts can lead to even more innovation by CI’s faculty and students.”

The UAVs won’t go into service for some time. The University must first obtain a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA, develop a series of protocols, and reconfigure the UAVs for their new, academic missions. Just like the Northrop Grumman engineers who preceded them, the CI faculty/student teams will experiment with design, development, testing and monitoring, and tackle challenges such as Space Weight and Power (SWaP) requirements and sensor integration. In the meantime, the UAVs are on loan to Ventura County’s Career Education Center Air Academy, where high school students get specialized training for college studies and careers in the aerospace industry.

“I’m happy that CI students will be able to learn as we did from experimentation with these sUAS assets,” Mendenhall said. “The lessons they learn will be directly applicable to the growing needs of companies and universities involved with the application of UAS or other unmanned systems emerging worldwide.”

Though best known for their use in military and security applications, drones are increasingly in demand for commercial, practical or otherwise "dull, dirty and dangerous" missions. They can aid in scientific research, help first responders in search and rescue operations, provide assistance during or after natural or man-made disasters, allow farmers to monitor fields and dust crops, help companies inspect power lines and pipelines, and capture aerial shots for filmmakers.

Their potential uses make unmanned aerial systems a promising industry for study, research and economic development. Currently, the use of drones is limited to government entities, including public universities, but the FAA is testing ways to safely integrate UAVs into civil airspace. Beginning in 2015, as the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (a.k.a. the“Drone Act” of 2012) loosens authorization for commercial uses, the industry is expected to skyrocket. Aerospace industry analysts estimate that it could become a $90 billion industry by 2020 – with the bulk of jobs and revenues in California.

“There are a lot of key technologies that need to be proven out before UAS can operate in national air space, and I expect that CI students may participate in studying, prototyping and evaluating some of these critical needs,” Mendenhall said. “The integration of sensors focusing on marine-wildlife monitoring, first-responder needs, or those aligned with search and rescue or fire-fighting needs are areas of opportunity that students are likely to explore. This is exactly how Charlie would have wanted to see these UAVs used after we were done with them.”

For more information, contact CI’s Jason Miller, senior research officer, at 805.437.8898 or [email protected], or Mark Mendenhall at 805.987.9480 or [email protected].

— Nancy Gill is the communications director for CSU Channel Islands.

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