The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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UMassAir Gets $100,000 Grant from President’s Science and Technology Fund

Michael Knodler

Michael Knodler

Professor Michael Knodler, the director of UMass Transportation Center in the UMass Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department, is working with a team of  investigators on a groundbreaking research program on unmanned aerial systems, which recently received one of the three Science and Technology Grants issued to campus faculty from the University of Massachusetts President’s Office. The UMass Unmanned Aerial System Research and Education Collaborative (or UMassAir) is being established to study unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, and advance cutting-edge, interdisciplinary, collaborative research and education. UMassAir received $100,000 in Science and Technology funds. See President’s Office Awards $735,000 in Science and Technology Grants.

In addition to Knodler, the other investigators within UMassAir are Professor David Boutt of the UMass Amherst Department of Geosciences, Professor Charles Schweik of the UMass Amherst Department of Environmental Conservation and School of Public Policy, Professor Lance N. Fiondella of the UMass Dartmouth Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Dr. Paula Rees of the UMass Amherst Water Resources Research Center, and Professor Michael Plotnikov of the UMass Amherst Physics Department.

UMassAir has been established collaboratively with the twin goals to: serve as an incubator to develop new basic and applied research through access to unmanned aerial system (UAS) technology; and initiate an educational program to train the next generation of UAS research scientists and a civilian workforce seeking to gain knowledge in UAS piloting, sensor use, data processing, and analytics.

Aerial drones provide a platform to collect high-resolution spatial, temporal, and spectral remote-sensing data at relatively low cost. Moreover, their potential applications are vast, both in the private and public sector. Traditional processing of data collected by satellite and manned aircraft is time-consuming and costly, and the output often does not provide sufficient spatial or temporal resolution to address some scientific needs. On the other hand, ability to collect remote-sensing data on demand at relatively low cost, as can be achieved with UAS technology, creates numerous opportunities for both scientific research and industrial applications.

The economic potential for this research offers a booming potential in coming years. In one conservative estimate, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUSVI) projected an $82-billion UAS market and over 100,000 new UAS-related jobs in the U.S. over the next decade. These jobs are expected to be in a number of areas, including agriculture, real estate, utility management, construction, filmmaking, infrastructure management, law enforcement, and emergency response. According to the same AUVSI study, nearly 3,000 new jobs and $300 million in total economic impact are expected in Massachusetts by 2025.

Central to the design and implementation of the UMassAir initiative is the UMass Transportation Center’s Aviation Center. Knodler helped launch the Aviation Center in collaboration with Professor John Collura, Plotnikov, and several industry partners. Over the past three years, the Aviation Center has established itself as a leader in UAS research, education, training, and applications. Outcomes of completed Aviation Center research include several refereed publications and presentations at regional, national, and international conferences sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board and the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The Science and Technology funding will enable UMassAir to build upon and complement the above UAS-related activities as well as submit proposals to support projects in the three key thrust areas.

The first is UAS operational safety, security, and reliability. Research is needed to address several issues related to safety, security, and privacy, among others. Examples of such research areas include development of methods to track and monitor drones; creation of a statewide UAS registry and incident database; and establishing methods to ensure compliance with FAA regulations and their enforcement.

The second thrust area is natural resources, agriculture, and infrastructure management. The drone is emerging as a key tool for environmental science and management. UAS technology, with its shorter time scales, greater detail, and on-demand data collection, analysis, and interpretation through utilization of high-resolution multispectral and hyperspectral sensors, will significantly expand our ability to understand the natural world in ways never before possible. For example, in agriculture, implementation of UAS can help farmers to increase yield and reduce operational costs.

The third and last thrust area is public policy and social impacts. Currently, public opinion is mixed regarding wider implementation of drones. Public safety and public opinion related to UAS are two major areas of concerns that urgently need to be addressed. Additionally, some federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have shown reservations on the use of UAS-related technologies because of an unknown potential threat to wildlife. Hence, research grants typically require social science or public policy considerations to be thoroughly studied and addressed in the proposals.

Examples of the proposed research to be conducted at UMassAir include:

  1. A pilot study on current counter-drone technology solutions to shield airports and approach and departure corridors, intended to address the safety and security of travelers and airport personnel;
  2. a pilot study on UAS application intended to explore opportunities to increase efficiency and improve operations of  the MassDOT Highway Division, Rail and Transit Division, and Aeronautics Division;
  3. and a research study on security approaches, measures, and technologies to prevent hacking and cyber attacks against UAS (in collaboration with UMass-Dartmouth), intended to explore potential threats to UAS operations and countermeasures and eliminate or minimize their negative impacts.

(June 2017)