There’s no question that the drone industry is growing exponentially, with new uses for UASs being developed constantly. With so many people getting in to the industry, in many cases it’s a free-for-all in terms of training and certification. Not so the case with the graduates of the Kansas State University UAS program – they have received some of the best training available. According to Aerospace Engineering and Design magazine online, “With one of the best aviation programs in the country, K-State Salina is the second university to offer a Bachelor of Science in UAS. K-State Salina is also one of only a few universities with authorization to fly UAVs in the National Airspace System.” We asked a few questions of the KSU UAS department to learn more about the program and what they offer.
When was the UAS department at Kansas State University started?
The origins of the Kansas State University unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, program can be traced to the desire to improve emergency response and public safety in the wake of the tornado outbreak in May 2007. That event produced 100 tornadic storms across multiple Midwestern states. Among the worst of these storms was the EF5 tornado that destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, Kansas. With the remaining 5 percent heavily damaged, the town was nearly obliterated from the Kansas landscape. The outbreak injured scores, killing 11 people in Greensburg alone. The scope of the devastation and recognition of the need to support the efforts of first responders and emergency managers by providing the necessary tools to effectively locate survivors, assess damage and formulate plans, led Kansas legislators to allocate funds to improve disaster response within the state. The Kansas State University UAS program was founded on the Salina campus using a portion of that allocation.
How big is the program (i.e. how many students)?
Our enrollment has experienced an exponential trajectory during the last three years. We currently have approximately 55 primary UAS majors with 5 to 10 additional students “dual-majoring” in both manned and unmanned flight operations. We expect to enroll between 35 to 45 freshmen in the fall of 2015, with a total enrollment, including transfers, approaching 100 students.
What are some of the courses offered in the program? Can students choose areas of specialization?
Students may elect to major in flight and field operations, which produces a well-rounded graduate knowledgeable in UAS design, construction, regulations, avionics, the management of field operations, and payload and autopilot architecture and integration. The UAS engineering technology focus consists of an applied engineering curriculum. Data acquisition and processing classes are also available as electives or as part of the coursework necessary to complete the minor in UAS. The minor will also be available to currently enrolled K-State students in non-aviation majors and to graduates of accredited universities.
What kind of hands-on training do your students receive?
During the first three years of the curriculum, K-State Salina UAS students obtain FAA certification as instrument rated private pilots, construct UAS aircraft, perform autopilot integrations and receive simulator training on the Cloud Cap Piccolo Command Center autopilot system as well as in the two station AVO/PPO environment common in Predator/Reaper class surveillance aircraft. During the first semester of their final year, seniors conduct field operations flying aircraft equipped with Piccolo autopilots as well as aircraft equipped with open source, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) autonomous flight avionics. In their final semester, a capstone senior project course gives K-State Salina students the ability to produce a final product based on what they have learned during their four-year academic career. Additionally, a limited number of students are offered paid opportunities as participants in ongoing research projects and as UAS flight instructors.
What sorts of applications/uses for UAS are covered in the program?
A full gamut of UAS operations is covered in some way. However, more emphasis is placed on small UAS because these are the first platforms that will see commercial applications. The K-State Salina UAS program is directly involved in real world, hands-on research flight operations supporting agriculture, infrastructure and utility inspections, environmental monitoring, the remediation of environmental harms and the development of small UAS certification procedures.
Does the program include engineering/tech development aspect to the industry?
Yes. Our philosophy is that producing an insightful graduate from the flight and field operations major requires coursework in math and science, electrical engineering technology, avionics and computer science. Those students electing to major in UAS engineering technology are well versed in the art and practice of applied engineering.
What other types of research in the UAS industry is your program working on?
Kansas State University is quite involved in research projects that incorporate small UAS. These programs include precision agriculture, public safety, aviation safety enhancement, industrial and infrastructure inspection, the development of airworthiness standards and more. These research projects are founded on partnerships that include federal, international and private sponsors.
What are your students qualified to do after they finish your program? What sorts of jobs do they go on to?
More than 50 percent of our graduates have accepted positions conducting flight operations for large UAS corporations that include AAI and General Atomics. Roughly 15 percent are employed by companies conducting flights in support of agriculture while another 15 percent are employed with large, established UAS companies in technical areas supporting flight testing. The remaining K-State Salina UAS graduates were commissioned as officers in the Air Force or Army.
Tell us about the agreement you have with the Kansas National Guard and the U.S. Army to operate? How did that come about?
This relationship was initiated in 2007 which turned out to be a particularly bad weather year for Kansas, most poignantly with the Greensburg EF5 tornado that devastated the entire town that May. About that same time, K-State aviation faculty were interested in investigating this technology to teach students about the future of aviation technology. The Kansas National Guard was well aware of this technology through their mission in the Middle East. Those conversations merged, partly enabled by that year’s natural disasters, and the relationship began to be forged to advance this technological capability in Kansas. While recent FAA and Department of Defense, or the DOD, policy decisions have somewhat hampered university and DOD relationships in that regard on a national level, in the event of another natural disaster, we anticipate that Kansas State University will again be called to work with the Kansas National Guard to provide rapid response situational awareness using small UAS. We continue to maintain a relationship with the Guard to ensure cohesion when we are called to provide support. We continue to seek opportunities to work with the Guard to maintain proficiency in these collaborative missions.
Thanks for sharing your insights. Is there anything else we haven’t touched on that you would like to share with us?
K-State Salina also offers a Professional Master of Technology degree with an area of emphasis in UAS management as well as a graduate certificate in UAS cyber security. For additional information on these programs, contact Dr. Raju Dandu, PMT director at 785-826-2629 or rdandu@K-State.edu. The K-State Salina UAS program is also working on an articulation with the nationally recognized Kansas Wesleyan University emergency management program which will provide K-State Salina UAS majors access to the KWU emergency management minor and vice versa. For additional information on the articulation, contact Lonnie Booker, Jr., KWU director of the emergency management program, at 785-827-5541 or Lonnie.firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Michael Most, K-State Salina’s UAS academic program lead at 785-826-6281 or email@example.com.
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