Indiana State leads the way in unmanned systems

Experts say there is potential for unmanned systems to change the way people live their daily lives. Indiana State is a leader in this emerging field.

Anthony “AJ” Jones will graduate this spring from Indiana State University’s aviation program, but he’s not interested in flying a plane — at least not in the conventional manner. Jones is completing a bachelor’s degree in aviation management and has his sights set on overseeing some level of flight operations with his feet firmly planted on the ground. But he has a backup plan. He’s completing a minor in unmanned systems, which he says is the future of aviation.
“I’m in love with flight. I love everything about it, except I don’t want to be a pilot,” the Indianapolis resident said. “I love the management side.”

Jones is also fascinated about being able to control an aircraft without actually being in the cockpit.

“I like the idea of controlling something that is not directly in my hands,” he said. “I’m a ‘How does that work?’ kind of guy, so I like the concept of operating a device by remote control and learning how it works with radio waves.”

There is potential for unmanned systems to change the way that people live their daily lives, said Bob English, dean of the College of Technology.

Equipment for the unmanned systems class in the College of Technology is seen.

Equipment for the unmanned systems class in the College of Technology is seen.

“It’s going to have a tremendous impact on logistical, transportation and health care systems. It will reduce the cost of moving small packages and products from one point to another,” he said. “I truly believe that it will have a dynamic impact on the way we live. Either you lead or you follow, and we want to lead.”

That’s why the college launched the minor three years ago and plans to roll out an unmanned systems major as early as this fall. The popularity of the minor surprised even its biggest supporters.

“We thought maybe 50 to 60 students would pursue the minor, and we’ve had more than 150 so far. Sixty have already graduated,” said Richard Baker, founding director of the Center for Unmanned Systems and Human Capital Development. He notes the minor has attracted students from 11 areas of study, including criminology and geology, as well as aviation.

While much of the world’s attention has been on unmanned aerial vehicles, Indiana State’s program also includes ground and amphibious vehicles, Baker said.

“Our students get hands-on experience with everything,” he said. “They actually start out by flying small helicopters. They actually build a small-wheeled or tracked vehicle, and they do competitions among themselves, so they get a breadth across all three systems. They learn how to apply the technology to other industries: insurance, for such things as tornado damage assessments, as well as logistics, agriculture, you name it.”

Indiana State is the only institution in the region that is pursuing the unmanned sector, said Matt Konkler, executive director of the National Center for Complex Operations.

“Indiana State has assumed some risk. They’ve been entrepreneurial in a way. They’ve been one of the first to get in line and to take initiative,” he said.

Faculty and staff have “been there, done that and understand the operations side and the human side,” Konkler added. “There are a lot of institutions who have jumped into this arena and have not been able to bring the assets to the table that Indiana State has.”

Because of its early commitment to unmanned systems, Indiana State is in a position to help influence national standards, said Jeffrey Hauser, executive director of Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field, assistant adjutant general with the Indiana Air National Guard and an adjunct faculty member in the university’s aviation department.

An aerial unmanned system is seen at Indiana State.

An aerial unmanned system is seen at Indiana State.

“We worked last year with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Washington, D.C., and a couple months later, they had us form a group of all of the universities working with unmanned systems to come up with different disciplines as far as academics, what sort of courses should be taught, as well as safety, and get all of the universities to work together.”

Hauser also briefed the Indiana Congressional delegation.

“We want them to be as informed as possible,” he said. “When they have questions or issues that people call in about, that they know how to get answers, so it’s important we link the three together: industry, higher education and the government/military.”

While some may have safety concerns about unmanned systems, supporters note such concerns were also raised when airplanes and even automobiles were first invented.

“We just have to look at it as a change,” said Jones. “What are the safeguards? That’s all we hear in unmanned vehicles is ‘safety, safety, safety.’”

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