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Researchers explore technology that could prevent midair conflicts between drones, other aircraft

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A team of North Dakota researchers is testing technology that will allow airplane pilots and others to detect the presence of flying drones and avoid incidents such as midair collisions.

The research project is using cooperative airspace techniques and visualization technology to make a case to the Federal Aviation Administration in hopes the agency would authorize its use. The technology allows a ground-based crew to keep tabs on a drone without installing additional equipment on the aircraft. The system uses information that is automatically generated by ground-based sensors to send warnings about the presence of unmanned aircraft to pilots, air traffic control personnel and others.

“The high-level goal of the project is to test these techniques out and get an approval from the FAA,” said Chris Theisen, director of research and development for the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks.

Two companies are collaborating with researchers from the test site and the University of North Dakota’s engineering and computer science departments. Harris Corp., a major technology company based in Florida, has created a form of visualization technology that the researchers will be testing.

If the safety case conducted by researchers is approved by the FAA for commercial use, it’s possible Harris would be able to market the detect-and-avoid technology, though test site staff emphasize they're not sure exactly what FAA approval would yield. In order to buy and use the technology, they surmise other companies would likely need to meet certain requirements.

“They would likely have to take the concept and prove they can do it safely,” said Trevor Wood, airspace manager for the test site.

In order to test the technology for research, ISight RPV Services, a drone flight service company in Grand Forks, has been tapped to pilot an unmanned aircraft at the same time a manned plane is in flight.

The two aircraft would be staggered at different altitudes, but the ground-based sensor would be tricked into thinking they’re at the same height, prompting warnings to broadcast.

“It’s research that will help expand the industry and make it safer so it’s great to be a part of that,” said Nate Leben, co-founder of ISight.

The tests will be conducted later this month at a location in rural Grand Forks County.

The research project will be the first mission flown under new permissions granted to the test site by the FAA. New federal rules came out in August but mostly impacted commercial operations. The test site is considered a public entity since it receives state money to cover a majority of its operations.

North Dakota’s test site and the nation’s five others now are allowed to fly higher than typical pilots under the new permissions, called a certificate of authorization. Arriving at the end of September, the new COA aligned well with the research project, Theisen said.

“The test site is always pushing forward to help create an easier, more efficient way to get folks in the air,” he added. “This is one of those methods.”

Story written by Brandi Jewett and published by Forum News Service

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