By Julee Cobb
Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus and industry partner Westar Energy are advancing unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, education, training and research with the completion of a new flight facility.
Partners Kansas State Polytechnic and Westar Energy hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 21 to honor their new collaborative project – the UAS Pavilion. From left, are: Verna Fitzsimmons, Kansas State Polytechnic CEO and dean; Trevor Witt, UAS junior; Kurt Barnhart, Kansas State Polytechnic associate dean of research and engagement; Tim Bruner, UAS senior; Jason Klenklen, supervisor of transmission maintenance at Westar Energy; and Bruce Akin, senior vice president of power delivery at Westar Energy.
The UAS Pavilion was officially opened on Oct. 21 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Kansas State Polytechnic’s campus. The space is one of the largest enclosed unmanned flight facilities in the nation. Measuring 300-feet-long by 200-feet-wide and 50-feet-tall, the structure will enable staff and students in Kansas State Polytechnic’s unmanned aircraft systems program to conduct flight training and research within steps of their lab space.
“As I was watching this structure being built, I couldn’t help but wonder about all the potential it would bring,” Tim Bruner, a senior in the unmanned aircraft systems program at Kansas State Polytechnic, said at the ceremony. “There is no doubt in my mind that this pavilion will provide countless opportunities for students in the UAS program. It opens the door for accessible flight training because it’s a fluid extension of our classroom, allowing us to fly right in our own backyard.”
Since the program’s inception in 2009, all UAS flight activities have had to operate offsite because of the campus’s proximity to the Salina Regional Airport. According to rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, unmanned aircraft – sometimes referred to as drones – cannot fly within five miles of an airport. The new structure will ensure UAS students and staff can avoid time and logistical challenges by flying onsite.
The new UAS Pavilion was built in September with the assistance of Westar Energy, Topeka, who has been an industry partner with Kansas State Polytechnic for a few years. The electric utility company and the unmanned aircraft systems program have been collaborating on applied research and training related to the development of UAS technology in and for the electric power energy sector, primarily consisting of infrastructure inspection.
“The research that is conducted through this program and now through this facility, will help us to be a best practice leader in our industry,” said Bruce Akin, senior vice president of power delivery at Westar Energy. “UAS technology can make our operations safer and more efficient, keeping the costs down for our customers. And when we can send out these devices to do inspections on power lines immediately after a major storm, it would really speed up the restoration process.”
Along with the 25 wooden poles donated and installed by Westar Energy, the facility employs custom fabricated netting panels on all sides and across the top. With the structure being contained but not completely closed off to outdoor elements, the facility does not block GPS signals on unmanned aircraft and allows flight missions to be conducted in various weather conditions. Because of the facility’s impressive size, on-campus location and multiple applications, the overall efficiency of the program’s flight operations and the students’ educational experience will be increasingly enhanced.
“My love of building things, aviation and robotics really all came together on this campus,” said Trevor Witt, a junior in Kansas State Polytechnic’s UAS program and the president of the UAS Club. “The pavilion is a convenient place for students to learn how to construct, fly and test unmanned aircraft, and I would like to host nationwide or even worldwide collegiate competitions in the space.”
The UAS Pavilion also can be utilized by outside industries as an arena for company training and research.
“Kansas State University has been working toward the goal of being recognized as a Top 50 public research institution by the year 2025,” said Verna Fitzsimmons, Kansas State Polytechnic CEO and dean. “By having a facility specifically dedicated to UAS research for both our program and outside partners, the pavilion is the perfect example of how our campus continues to contribute to that goal. These are truly exciting times on our campus.”
Kansas State Polytechnic is the second university in the nation to offer a bachelor’s degree in UAS, which began in 2011, and since then, the program has nearly doubled its enrollment every year. The initial degree focused on flight and operations, and in Fall 2015, the campus added a second bachelor’s degree in UAS design and integration. Kansas State Polytechnic was the first entity in the United States to be awarded statewide access for unmanned flight operations by the FAA and is a member of the FAA Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
For assistance with aerial data collection and research or to learn more about the UAS Pavilion, contact Kurt Carraway, Kansas State Polytechnic UAS program manager, at 785-826-2624 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or Kurt Barnhart, Kansas State Polytechnic associate dean of research and engagement, at 785-826-2972 or email@example.com.