By Marcus Lavergne

The University of Nevada, Reno, brought the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center to the College of Engineering in 2014. The organization collaborates with the Economic Development Authority in Western Nevada, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development Knowledge, the manufacturing industry and various K-12 and higher education programs to solve problems involved with different kinds of autonomous systems — systems that are programmed to work without manual human control and with little human interference. Presently, its members are working alongside NASA on an initiative that can potentially place more unmanned aerial vehicles in the sky. These UAVs have also been referred to as drones.

According to NAASIC’s Business Director Warren Rapp, NAASIC’s resources and expertise are unknown to many but have proven to be top-notch in extremely technical areas. UNR was actually the first to validate NASA’s developing air control system.

“When everything was said and done, they got up and said ‘hey, you’re in, we’re going to continue working with your university,’” Rapp said.

Dr. Richard Kelley, Assistant research professor and NAASIC’s Chief Engineer, has played a large part in facilitating the partnership with NASA. He’s been UNR’s outreach to NASA’s team, and has worked directly with the organization in its development of the project that could make UAVs much safer and autonomously dependable in the sky.

Kelley expressed his excitement for the partnership between UNR and NASA and the potential that NASA’s air traffic management project has given the future of UAVs.

“We started talking about air traffic and airspace management with NASA at last year’s air races,” Kelley said. “Now, NASA has a major national initiative to develop an airspace management system for drones. We leaned forward, and decided to be a part of that, so it’s been one of our top priorities.”

Kelley made it clear that the university has earned its right to be at the helm of the collaboration with NASA. He expressed his confidence in the resources that UNR has to provide to the effort.

“We have provided our technical expertise at the level of both faculty and student,” Kelley said. “We have a budget that allows us to really push the envelope in terms of what kind of technology we can develop and test with, and we have extensive experience with robotics and artificial intelligence and unmanned systems. We bring a lot to the table.”

Kelley also discussed the greatest issue at hand in regards to this type of research: UAV collisions.

“The big question is how do you keep a lot of drones from crashing into each other, into people on the ground, and into buildings,” Kelley said. “The answer is that you have some kind of air traffic control.”

There is tangible evidence that exhibits the air traffic control system’s development. There has been a substantial amount of positive progress for both NAASIC and NASA. Together, they will be testing out multiple elements at the beginning of September. Kelley explained how the university is physically assisting NASA in making the drones sky-safe.

“What we’re doing is building components of that air traffic system,” Kelley said. “It will allow our drones to talk to NASA’s system, and the plan is to make it automated. In our upcoming tests there will be a lot of humans in the loop but as things progress the goal is to make it as automated as possible.”

In regards to the current safety of UAVs, both Kelley and Rapp want to clarify that there is not an epidemic of drone accidents happening.

“You know, hobbyists have a tendency to crash their little ‘quadcopters,’ usually right after they get them,” Kelley said. “You get your drone, and you can’t fly, so you get some crashes, but really it’s not a crisis.”

This begs the question of the true motivation behind the initiative. Kelley and Rapp claimed that a large reason behind the research is the safety of the future of commercial industry.

“I think that going forward the question is going to be: ‘when you want to use this technology commercially, how are you going to make sure you don’t have collisions?’” Kelley said. “It’s NASA looking forward and saying how do we make this whole integration of [the] unmanned aircraft system into the national airspace safe for everyone.”

As NAASIC’s Business Director, Rapp delves in the commercial realm. He reaches out to the industry to discover what they want out of UNR grads and what they need to get solved through the university’s research, and he helps tie industry together with the campus to get those problems solved. He expressed his optimism for the growth and development of this industry in northern Nevada.

“Hopefully [NAASIC] helps them grow,” Rapp said. “We want [the businesses] growing here in northern Nevada. Now, we can lure those companies into getting the support they need from our university. This gives the students jobs, and also helps out the community by adding jobs.”

Marcus Lavergne can be reached at mlavergne@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @mlavergne21.