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UND, researchers assisting NASA with testing unmanned aircraft software

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota researchers will conduct an experiment next month as part of a program helping NASA study space -- airspace, that is. The federal agency is exploring the potential for regulating unmanned aircraft systems traffic as th...

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota researchers will conduct an experiment next month as part of a program helping NASA study space -- airspace, that is.

The federal agency is exploring the potential for regulating unmanned aircraft systems traffic as the technology advances and is integrated in commercial operations for tasks such as package delivery, inspections and news gathering.

Managing additional drone traffic on top of manned aircraft is key to both types of aircraft coexisting in the national airspace, and NASA is developing a system to do just that.

"NASA has this design of this system they want to use to deconflict and keep unmanned aircraft systems at low altitudes separate and safe from each other," said University of North Dakota professor Doug Olsen, who is leading the local research effort. "They've been developing it for a year and a half, two years now, and they're working with industry across the country."

The software wouldn't require human operators to monitor every moment of each vehicle's flight, NASA wrote on its website.

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On Thursday, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven announced $1 million would be awarded to NASA to allow it to integrate Department of Defense requirements into the software.

"NASA has been trying to come up with concepts on how you would do this, but NASA is not the (Federal Aviation Administration)," Olsen said. "They look at the world through different directions -- and rightly so because they have different organizational responsibilities -- so this is a good step to get the two agencies to work together."

Testing is part of NASA's process for developing the software, and the agency has turned to various organizations around the country to complete this step, including groups in North Dakota.

UND, in collaboration with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, will be stress testing a version of the software in mid-April.

Olsen said the flights of 24 aircraft will be simulated for the test, with four of those aircraft being real drones flown by operators in western Grand Forks County.

One of the aircraft will be UND's ScanEagle, an unmanned aircraft simulator used by students. The remaining aircraft will be flown with the cooperation of regional UAS companies Botlink, Altavian and Sensurion.

During the flights, researchers hoped to turn on the aircraft cameras and collect data. Doing so required permission from the university's UAS Research Ethics and Privacy Committee, which vets UND research proposals involving unmanned aircraft.

At its Wednesday meeting, the committee gave Olsen permission to collect data but required property owners whose land would be flown over be contacted through the means of a certified letter.

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The research group had received verbal permission from several landowners, but committee members said they'd feel more comfortable if as many means to contact owners were made as possible.

Related Topics: UNIVERSITY OF NORTH DAKOTA
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