TERRE HAUTE —
It may be another six months before officials at Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field and Indiana State University know if the Wabash Valley will be part of a Federal Aviation Administration test site for unmanned aircraft systems.
The two entities are part of what is called Indiana’s National Center for Complex Operations, which last month partnered with the state of Ohio, to pursue one of six sites the FAA will pick for developing unmanned aircraft system technology and operational procedures for such craft to routinely fly across the U.S.
Ohio offers test laboratories, and Indiana has restricted air space for test flights at locations such as Muscatatuck Urban Training Center and Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center.
Terre Haute’s airport can be used as a launching site to reach those restricted air spaces, said Darrel Zeck, director of operations and development at the airport.
Terre Haute offers less congested airspace that other sites, is capable of landing nearly any sized aircraft, provides automated landing and takeoff systems, and houses air traffic controllers, which includes a training center for those controllers, Zeck said.
Growth in the multi-billion unmanned aerial systems industry is expected to skyrocket in the next decade. A test site would create jobs from contractors using the test sites, Zeck said.
Zeck said Friday that the Ohio/Indiana partnership was to submit a proposal by Sept. 18. The FAA, he said, has pushed that back.
“I personally believe we won’t see anything until after the [November] election, likely in early December,” Zeck said. It would then be another 90 days before the FAA rules on the six sites, he added.
If the Ohio/Indiana partnership is selected as a test site, Indiana State University would serve as a “gateway” for civilian organizations to use the airspace in Indiana, said Richard E. Baker, ISU assistant professor of aviation and program director of ISU’s Unmanned System and Human Capital Development.
“If a company wants to come in and use the airspace to do some training with their unmanned system, ISU will take a look at it and sponsor them into the National Guard,” Baker said.
“We would do a small risk assessment to make sure [an unmanned system] is air worthy and safe to fly and has appropriate plans and checklists in place,” Baker said.
Zeck said whether the Ohio/Indiana partnership is chosen as a test site designation, the Terre Haute airport is continuing a parallel path with ISU “working on unmanned systems and bringing that business and economic development to the state of Indiana,” Zeck said.
Baker said by year’s end, ISU plans to obtain a certificate of authority to fly small unmanned systems out of Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field.
“That will be very limited. They will look like toy helicopters and toy airplanes to most people,” Baker said.
ISU currently offers a minor in unmanned systems and will offer a bachelor’s degree in the fall of 2013, Baker said.
“We are working on the application of unmanned systems for the benefit of people in areas such as homeland security, first responders and agricultural applications,” Baker said.
“You could get a better crop estimate and look at things such as crop damage and disease. The advantage is it costs much less that hiring an aircraft with a person per hour,” Baker said of unmanned aircraft.
Unmanned aircraft can also fly on cloudy days, which can block the view for satellites, Baker said. Such unmanned flights could also be used to show flood damage or potential flood concerns, Baker added.
“We think the civilian and agricultural side will grow rapidly over time, especially after the FAA has figured out how to work them in the national airspace system. That is why we are involved in the Indiana/Ohio effort to get a test site in our state,” Baker said.
“We want to be on the leading edge of trying to make sure this is done safely in the national airspace,” Baker said. “The biggest task is to make sure there is an ability to keep an unmanned aircraft system safely in the national airspace with a sense and avoid system, which works the same as a manned aircraft which uses a see and avoid” system with a pilot, he said.
“The research is how is this going to work,” Baker said.
Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.