Mavericks in drone research: UT-Arlington helping FAA study unmanned aircraft

Moving his hands somewhat like a magician, Krishna Kanth makes a series of gestures over a small sensor — not much bigger than a matchbox — connected to his laptop.

On the other side of the room is a four-propeller unmanned aircraft, a Parrot Quadrotor, programmed to fly, hover and land as directed by Kanth’s hands. Today, the 6-pound flying machine is just a few feet away, but it could be on the other side of the world and Kanth could still control it, as long as he had a wireless connection.

“You just use the reflexes of your body,” said Kanth, an electrical engineering graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington, explaining that using the LeapMotion sensor is easier than manipulating a joystick or pressing buttons while piloting an unmanned aircraft. “It detects the bones of my hand, each and every finger.”

Kanth and other students and professors are conducting cutting-edge research at the UT-Arlington Research Institute, both inside and just outside a nondescript building surrounded by several acres of vacant land and Mosier Lake, just south of where Texas 121 “Airport Freeway” and East Loop 820 merge in east Fort Worth.

The university is part of the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative, one of six programs nationwide picked by the Federal Aviation Administration to help come up with rules so that drones and other unmanned aircraft can share airspace with airplanes, helicopters and other manned flying machines.

UT Arlington officials learned Friday that their program had been granted an FAA certificate of authorization allowing researchers to fly unmanned aircraft on the property surrounding its research institute, near Handley-Ederville Road and Randol Mill Road, up to an altitude of 400 feet.

The research institute also works in partnership with the Arlington Chamber of Commerce Center for Innovation, with the hope of bringing commercial viability to the latest in technological developments.

The FAA’s goal is to complete its work on unmanned aircraft rules by 2015. Many people who follow trends say it’s possible that in a few years unmanned aircraft will be performing a variety of tasks once done by humans — including police work, wildfire surveillance and search-and-rescue operations. Online delivery retailer is even researching whether to deploy a fleet of unmanned aircraft to deliver shipments weighing less than 5 pounds in certain markets.

At the research level, the idea is to first get the flying machines programmed so they “talk” to one another. One of UT Arlington’s specific roles in the research is exploring how to equip flying machines with “detect and avoid” technology so they can avoid running into not only each other, but also any obstruction on the ground — a building, an animal or perhaps a human walking by.

“Our focus is on the safe operation of unmanned aircraft,” said Atilla Dogan, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

UT Arlington and several other universities agreed to become part of the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative, which is led by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

In east Fort Worth, although the wind was too gusty Monday morning for a scheduled demonstration flight outside the research center, several ground-based unmanned vehicles were on display, including a wheeled robot that made its way along a painted course on a grassy field.

Inside the building, a group of students also showed off video results of their test flight performed Sunday, when the skies were calmer and temperatures in the 70s. The group flew a fixed-wing aircraft, a Finwing Penguin, for about 40 minutes around the property.

“We’re getting ready for a competition in Maryland,” said Botond Pal, team leader and aerospace engineering major.

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