Griffiss helps position region at forefront of emerging drone industry

Published Feb 16, 2018 at 12:00pm

For unmanned aerial systems, better known as drones, to realize their full potential commercially, they must be able to fly missions beyond the visual line of sight of their operators. 

Current rules do not let people fly drones beyond the line of sight of operators or over people’s heads in public places, which limits applications of commercial drones.

The capability of flying outside the operator’s line of sight will open up a whole new world of opportunities for pilotless aircraft, particularly in industries like oil and gas, utilities and emergency response.

However, drones, whether they’re flying within the operator’s line of sight or beyond it, must be safely integrated into the national airspace system so they can operate without creating greater risks for manned aircraft—and that’s where unmanned traffic management technology comes in.

The test sites designated by the Federal Aviation Administration, like the one at Griffiss International Airport, NASA and drone manufacturers are focusing on developing technology to enable safe integration of low-altitude unmanned aerial system operations. The envisioned system helps with mission planning and collision avoidance up front, and sends notifications to alert pilots to any problems, such as “intruders” or their system going out of the designated area, while they’re in flight.

The Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, a coalition of private and public entities and academic institutions in New York and Massachusetts, has been tasked with creating an airspace corridor between Rome and Syracuse where traffic management systems can be developed and unmanned aircraft can undergo safety and performance testing. NUAIR manages the Griffiss test site and is positioning it as a drone industry incubator. It is hoped the test site and corridor can help lure tech companies to Central New York, 

In fact, one drone company has set up shop at Griffiss. 

In addition, the airport performs NASA-affiliated drone testing and hosts companies that want to try out specific applications.

The FAA figures the drone business will be a $90 billion industry by 2025. 

The unmanned aircraft traffic management corridor, jump-started by a $30 million state investment, will extend 50 miles west over mostly rural farmland from Rome. It will be equipped with radar and ground-based sensors to enable what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo boasted would be “the most advanced drone testing in the country” during an appearance at Griffiss in September.

Testing at the airport has been restricted to a five-mile radius, in part because of Federal Aviation Administration rules that normally limit flying beyond the operator’s line of sight, except in special circumstances, such as disaster area surveys. That keeps companies like Amazon and Walmart from using drones for package delivery.

Companies will be able to use the corridor to test hardware in airspace where manned aircraft also fly. Part of the concept is to help NASA to test technology that will allow the FAA to create regulations opening the national airspace to a commercial drone industry.

Drone operators on the ground at Griffiss flew four unmanned aerial systems simultaneously last year as part of NASA’s national campaign to further test and refine its unmanned aircraft systems traffic management technologies.

“Clients will eventually be able to fly beyond the visual line of sight in the corridor testing their technology,” said Tony Basile, NUAIR’s vice president for operations.

The corridor is to be fully operation by the end of this year.

Cuomo has pledged up to $250 million under his Upstate Revitalization Initiative to foster growth of the unmanned aviation industry. 

The corridor also will include the National UAS [unmanned aerial system] Standardized Testing and Recording facility that is intended to operate as a testing service that certifies the cybersecurity and airworthiness of small civilian drones. Currently, there are no standards for drone airworthiness and certification.

A key player in this initiative is Syracuse-based Gryphon Sensors, which used $5 million in state funding to develop a van equipped with radar to spot drones up to six miles away. Gryphon developed ground-based sensors and radars that track aircraft at the Griffiss test site.

Like self-driving cars, unmanned aircraft will ultimately need onboard sensors allowing them to detect and avoid obstacles, including other aircraft, said Basile.

In addition to supporting development of drone air traffic control rules and systems, NUAIR helps unmanned aircraft service companies demonstrate their wares to clients and provides drone pilot training to state forest rangers, law enforcement and others. 

Lockheed Martin has demonstrated unmanned aerial firefighting at Griffiss. In addition, Aurora Flight Sciences has flown its optionally piloted aircraft unmanned over the airport. The plane’s multiple flights marked the first time any large-scale, fixed-wing aircraft flew at any of the FAA’s designated drone test sites, according to Aurora. 

“We’re evaluating aircraft today, but the ultimate goal is, how do we operate in a beyond-line-of-sight capability,” said Glen Davis, safety director of AIROS, a General Electric venture company that was at Griffiss last September to test a 6-foot-long unmanned helicopter for pipeline and refinery inspections.

Law enforcement tool

Drones are now part of the arsenal of equipment used by New York State Police.

Four state police zones, including the one that covers Oneida County, are using drones to support pubic safety missions such as accident response and traffic safety. State police members who will operate the drones will be Federal Aviation Administration certified and undergo 32 hours of hands-on training with the systems.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the airborne devices provide a significant cost savings over piloted aircraft, reduce response times and make operations more efficient and cost-effective. Officials say the equipment will also protect troopers by doing jobs too hazardous for humans.

Drones can be used to document and help reconstruct serious motor vehicle crashes in less time than with current methods, resulting in shorter road closures, thereby decreasing the impact on motorists. Investigators will also use the drones to document and photograph crime scenes. 

In addition, the pilotless aircraft can also be used in dangerous situations and environments, including natural disasters, keeping law enforcement personnel out of harm’s way. 

“Gov. Cuomo’s recent launch of the new state police unmanned aerial system program is a progressive step towards integrating thus important technology for the betterment of the community,” said Marke F. Hoot, NUAIR CEO.

“We know UAS technologies hold the potential to support search-and-rescue missions and improve disaster and emergency responses, while reducing costs.”

He added, “We are proud to work with the state to ensure New York State Police officers are properly trained and fully certified as test site missioner commanders.”

Troop D, which covers Oneida, Madison and Lewis counties, is one of the four zones flying drones. The program will be expanded later this year.

The drones will be donated by the New York State Trooper Foundation, a charity that raises private funds for state police training and equipment.

The state police aviation unit uses helicopters and airplanes.

UAS aids water rescue

A drone was used to drop a flotation device to two teens caught in a riptide in heavy seas off an Australian beach in what officials describe as a world-first rescue.

The swimmers got into trouble on Jan. 18 at Lennox Head, a beach popular with surfers south of the city of Brisbane. The pair was about a half mile from lifeguards, who were about to start training with the new drones, equipped with a camera, rescue gear and six rotors, according to news service reports. 

The practice turned into a real rescue when someone noticed that the two men swimming outside safety flags were in trouble in a 10-foot swell, the government said in a statement.

Lifeguards launched the drone, steered it toward the swimmers and dropped a “rescue pod” into the water, where it expanded so the swimmers could grab it and swim to shore.

“Never before has a drone fitted with a flotation device been used to rescue swimmers like this,” said John Barilaro, the deputy premier of New South Wales state.

The rescue took just 70 seconds. The two swimmers were exhausted but unharmed.

Drone film fest at State Fair

Entries are being accepted for the second annual Drone Film Festival and Competition at this summer’s New York State Fair in suburban Syracuse.

There are eight categories, including one for films featuring New York state. At least half of each video must be shot using a drone or other unmanned aerial vehicle. Entries must be uploaded at the event’s site on by the end of June. Fees for most entries are $25. The competition will be professionally judged and winners in each category will be eligible for a $250 prize.

Last year’s Best in Show video was about using a drone to deliver medicine to save a snakebite victim in the Amazon rainforest. Other winners presented views of the Erie Canal, Alaska and Iceland.