NJIT To Guide the Nation Into an Unmanned Future

NJIT will help the FAA test unmanned aircraft. Above, a group of NJIT students studying Mechanical Engineering and Emergency Management and Business Continuity observe an unmanned aircraft test site.

NJIT will help the Federal Aviation Administration decide if it’s safe to allow unmanned aircraft fly in the nation’s airspace.

Recently The FAA chose six teams from across the nation to research the safety of unmanned commercial aircraft. The teams will also provide operational standards that could allow the aircraft to share the skies with jets and helicopters.

NJIT is part of a site team that will evaluate the flying robots at sites such as the New Jersey Air National Guard Range at Warren Grove and the William J. Hughes FAA Center in Pomona. The site team grew out of a collaboration between New Jersey and Virginia; the team is led by Virginia Tech and includes NJIT and American Aerospace Advisers, a private company partnering with NJIT.

By 2015, the FAA must report to Congress on whether to allow unmanned aircraft into the National Air Space. If approved, these autonomous aircraft could be used by commercial companies to deliver packages, inspect agricultural lands, guide ships and monitor oil spills. They could also be used to help police and firefighters enhance public safety.   

But first, the government must ensure that these flying robots are safe. And that’s where NJIT comes in.

“As the state’s science and technology university, NJIT is ideally suited to help the FAA test these unmanned aircraft,” says Professor Mike Chumer, who coordinates unmanned aircraft system research at NJIT and is a member of the test-site teams Policy and Strategy Committee. 

University researchers have already performed applied research tests on the aircraft at the Warren Grove Airport, Chumer says. And the researchers will meet with state officials to identify the potential application of these aircraft for use in emergency management and public safety. 

The test at the airport attracted a crowd. A director from Newark’s Office of Emergency Operation and officials from New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness observed the test, as did students studying Emergency Management and Business Continuity at NJIT.  The university researchers, working with its partners, will also test the aircraft to see if they can be used to contend with natural disasters or power failures.

NJIT houses the New Jersey Homeland Security Technology Systems Center, which has also begun conducting lab research on unmanned aircraft systems. William Marshall, an NJIT assistant vice president who directs the center, said unmanned aircraft can play a vital role in homeland security and national emergencies. But NJIT and its partners must first help develop safety requirements that the FAA can recommend to Congress. Once Congress  approves the safety measures, expected in 2015, the providers of unmanned aircraft can apply for permission to use them in the nation’s airspace.

“We’ll develop the proper checks and balances regarding the safety of allowing unmanned aircraft into the national airspace,” Marshall says.  “And once they are approved by Congress, their use will be a boon to the state economy since businesses will have a new way to deliver products and provide other services. “These aircraft could also help bolster the nation’s homeland security -- without endangering the lives of pilots. It can be a win-win-win situation.”

 By Robert Florida