CORVALLIS, Ore. - This year the Autonomous Systems Research Group at Oregon State University will significantly expand its activities with unmanned vehicles for air, marine and terrestrial applications, including development of a local test field and a range of training and certification programs.

The initiative is part of OSU's efforts to become both a state and national leader in the evolution of these new technologies, working in partnership with private industry and government agencies. It hopes to capitalize on Oregon's advantages in technological expertise, history of skills in remote sensing, and broad range of geographic land features that rival any in the world.

A session for OSU participants to discuss some of the newest plans, and seek further input and involvement from the campus community, will be held on Monday, April 27, in Memorial Union, Room 213, from 10-11 a.m.

"This is an important future strength area for OSU and an economic opportunity for Oregon," said Rob Holman, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU, and co-director of this initiative.

"It's surprising how far flight and control systems have already progressed," Holman said. "The industry is developing very rapidly, so timeliness of action is important. But there are still challenges in how to perfect technologies, most intelligently use the new systems, manage the data they produce, and train and certify both the aircrafts and people who will operate them.

"We believe there's a great deal OSU can contribute," he said.

The technologies being developed, commonly called drones, will have applications both in the air and also underwater or on land. A myriad of uses in agriculture, forestry and environmental sciences are possible, all of which are traditional areas of strength for OSU.

OSU is a participant in the "Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex," one of six FAA-approved test ranges designed to explore unmanned aerial systems use, safety, certification, technological development, environmental and human factors, and other topics. The university is part of a competitive, multi-university proposal to be designated as an FAA Center of Excellence. And OSU recently made an agreement with an Oregon economic development organization, SOAR Oregon, to promote commercial application of unmanned aircraft systems in the state.

A natural strength of Oregon, experts say, is that within a few miles unmanned vehicles could explore terrain ranging from oceans to coastal dunes, temperate rain forests, valleys, urban areas, volcanos, lava fields, glaciers and high desert - along with an unusually diverse range of forestry and agricultural crops.

One of the priorities this year, Holman said, is development of a local test field near Corvallis for training, testing, and certification of both pilots and new technologies. It might include a netted area that would allow test flights for multi-rotor vehicles without the need for FAA permission.

Other plans include:

  • Acquire a small fleet of aerial vehicles that can be used for training, testing and contract research flights;
  • Organize a flight operations group to help develop training and certification standards, and safe flight policies;
  • Develop written and operation testing for flight operations;
  • Create privacy and data use policies.

Experts say that unmanned aerial systems in civilian use are expected to become a multi-billion dollar industry while opening new opportunities in scientific research and student education.

A multitude of devices may ultimately fly, walk, swim or crawl to perform valuable or dangerous tasks at very modest expense.

Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.


Rob Holman, 541-737-2914