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In a project that could help the FAA integrate drones into the national airspace, professor Doug Cairns and a team that includes two high school students simulate drone-aircraft collisions using a giant slingshot.
BOZEMAN — The drone shattered when it collided with the Cessna airplane, tearing the wing’s aluminum shell, popping rivets and leaving a grapefruit-sized dent.
No one was hurt in the crash, due to the fact that the detached wing was stationed at a Montana State University test facility near Bozeman, and the drone was launched into it using a giant slingshot.
“It hit right where we wanted it to,” said Doug Cairns, a professor in MSU’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, as he surveyed the damage.
The slingshot, with its playfully painted bucket, rugged metal frame and orange rubber strips that stretch taut with the help of an electric winch, “is a whimsical-looking thing,” Cairns said. But it is capable of launching the small remote-controlled aircraft at speeds up to 165 mph.
“There’s science behind it,” Cairns said.
The rivet-popping collision was one of many that Cairns’ team will create this summer for a project partly funded by the Federal Aviation Administration. As more and more drones take to the skies — piloted by hobbyists seeking aerial photographs or professionals monitoring such things as wildfires — the FAA is forming standards to ensure the safety of other aircraft.
“We can’t do that unless we’re properly informed about what happens when a drone impacts an airplane,” said FAA program manager Michael Reininger, who visited the MSU test site on July 17. “Our ultimate goal is to safely integrate drones into the national airspace.”
MSU is one of 16 research institutions leading drone studies in an FAA program called ASSURE, an acronym for Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence. UAS stands for unmanned aircraft systems, a technical term for drones ranging from airplane-like machines capable of flying long distances to the dinner plate-sized hobby craft tested in the MSU study.
This year, the FAA selected MSU as one of three universities to fund for ASSURE’s educational outreach activities. As a result, two Montana high-school students are contributing to the MSU drone research through the Montana Apprenticeship Program, which is coordinated through the Empower program in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.
Ethan Neff, of Libby, and Raferdy Samson, of Hot Springs, are living on the MSU campus for four weeks while helping Cairns and his undergraduate and graduate students with the project.
“It has been nice to work alongside college students as if I were one,” Neff said soon after he pulled a nylon cord to trigger one of three drone launches for the day.
High-speed cameras captured video of the impacts, while sensors measured each drone’s acceleration during launch. In another test, one of the donated drones was propelled into a steel plate that measured the force of impact. All of the data are intended to help other researchers, including a team at Wichita State University in Kansas, improve computer models that simulate a variety of drone-aircraft incidents, according to Cairns.
Madison Tandberg, a sophomore in MSU’s Gianforte School of Computing, said she is working with Cairns to gain experience so that she might create software that could help drones detect their surroundings and avoid aircraft. “That doesn’t exist yet,” she said.
According to Cairns, drone research is a new field, and even casual observations during the drone-smashing can provide valuable information. One drone started billowing smoke shortly after it was launched into the metal plate, likely as a result of a damaged battery.
“Anyone want to roast marshmallows,” joked Samson as he paused from locating drone pieces strewn during the collision. This summer’s internship marks his second with the MAP program, and he said he hopes to enroll at MSU and continue the research with Cairns.
“If that were embedded in the wing of a plane, it wouldn’t be pretty,” Cairns said of the smoking drone. “Birds don’t do that,” he said, referring to another common aircraft hazard.
Reininger cautiously approached for a closer look. Then he said: “That’s a highly successful test.”
The Montana Apprenticeship Program encourages young people to pursue four-year college degrees and supports the inclusion and success of Native American and other underrepresented students, including those who are the first in their families to attend a four-year university in science and engineering fields. The program, which is offered to Montana residents entering their junior and senior years of high school, introduces students to college coursework, research and careers. The program is in line with the Montana University System’s goal of providing students, and potential students, with hands-on research experiences that expose them to cutting-edge techniques and ideas.
This story is available on the Web at: http://www.montana.edu/news/17897