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Progress of Unmanned Aerial Systems Program at UTEP is Soaring

Michael McGee, Ph.D., is comfortable with the pursuit of lofty goals.

The senior research associate with The University of Texas at El Paso’s NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR) put that notion on display throughout a 20-year career with the U.S. Air Force and subsequent success in private industry as a senior policy researcher.

But his latest undertaking is just as towering. Since January 2018, McGee has led cSETR’s work in unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In less than a year, he has made UTEP the focal point of efforts to significantly improve public safety and bolster border security through the utilization of drone technology. His ability to bridge communication between various governmental agencies has not only elevated the heights of UTEP’s drone program, it has also increased the campus’ footprint.

Test Site Bravo in Tornillo, Texas, on the eastern fringe of El Paso County, will serve as the flight test range for cSETR’s burgeoning UAS program. The new test site will see a runway and completion of other test and evaluation infrastructure development within the next two years. The center already has grown its UAS fleet to 11 state-of-the-art aircraft and expanded laboratory facilities to support UAS research and development. UTEP’s growth in east El Paso County represents the realization of efforts to turn the region into a vital component to meet the workforce needs of a rapidly-growing segment of the aerospace industry.

“I am grateful to be part of an institution that takes a very unique look at higher education,” McGee said. “I also relish the opportunity to work on a project that is critical to the development of our nation, both from a technological standpoint and as a provider for the workforce needs of the 21st century.”

McGee brings a wealth of aviation experience to UTEP. He is an accomplished F-16 Falcon pilot who flew more than 1,500 missions and served a number of combat and command tours in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The aptitude he displayed at high altitude eventually led to a four-year stint as an instructor at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School — known as Top Gun — at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

After retiring from the military, McGee joined the RAND Corporation, where he focuses on a variety of civilian and military aviation, defense and security related subjects for the Department of Defense and other government agencies.

His decades of flight experience have been significantly beneficial in the establishment of the UAS program at UTEP due to his knowledge of application of technological advancements to aircraft and sensors, his attention to the safety aspects of flight and their importance in aerospace research, and his ability to navigate the regulatory processes associated with aviation.

His extensive knowledge and national connections made him an exceptional choice to lead the UAS program, said Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., UTEP associate vice president for strategic initiatives and cSETR’s founding director.

“Our center began with a focus on rocket propulsion, and we still conduct very significant work in that aspect,” Choudhuri said. “But as time passes, research centers evolve. We have seen a tremendous need, nationally, for unmanned aerial system drones. This is a natural expansion from what cSETR currently does, and it represents an industry that will dominate the workforce needs of the future. We wanted to be at the forefront of that challenge and we wanted to actively build our UAS program. But we needed the right person. We wanted someone who believes in UTEP’s mission, first, but also someone who has the expertise and national connections to get it off the ground. Mike brings both of those aspects to the job.”

McGee’s impact was felt immediately. In March, he led a team of leaders from El Paso County, the City of El Paso, El Paso International Airport and many other regional government entities in a partnership with California-based AirMap, a global airspace management platform for drones, in installation of the country’s first countywide-area operational low-altitude UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system. The system initially became operational in March, providing critical deconfliction between manned and unmanned aircraft.

“Over the past few years, the number of unmanned systems in the U.S. has grown significantly. Unfortunately, the federal government currently can’t ensure deconfliction between manned and unmanned aircraft in this low altitude airspace,” McGee said. “We have civilian and government operators that fly manned aircraft in this same low-altitude environment every day of the year. We also have an international border to the south and restricted airspace to the north because of Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range. So, all of the region’s air traffic funnels over our city. When you start to mix unmanned systems and manned systems in the same low-altitude airspace, it becomes a public safety hazard. We had two choices: either wait for the federal government to come up with a solution or combine research capabilities here at UTEP and the partnerships in aviation of all the region’s local, state and federal organizations that all have significant requirements to improve safety. That’s how we arrived at the UTM.”

Since then, he has continued to build relationships with local emergency responders as well as state and federal agencies in efforts to enhance public safety and border security throughout the region. That work is being funded by a $480,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

“El Paso is very unique in that we are a large urban island,” McGee said. “We are a long way from Dallas, Phoenix, and Albuquerque. This created an opportunity for all these agencies to work together to develop this program. We have a close partnership with all those federal, state and local agencies. We are actively conducting research to help increase the safety of our region.”

An outgrowth of that research has been the integration of capabilities from interdisciplinary research within the drone program. McGee said “cSETR’s main unmanned aviation focus is advanced research on long-range and long-endurance autonomous aircraft, advanced sensor integration, and autonomous aircraft able to operate in confined, GPS-denied environments.”

Angel Flores-Abad, Ph.D., research assistant professor with cSETR, is developing a method to perform close-range inspections of power plants and other structures using drones. Flores said his navigation system will be able to safely move drones within one foot of structures to inspect their integrity and assess damage. His work is funded through a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“This is an example of a novel technology, developed through our unmanned aerial systems program, that will allow us to focus on power-plant inspection and maintenance,” Flores said. “It will reduce costs of operation and protect the critical energy infrastructure of the United States. You can see how unmanned systems play a very critical role in public safety.”

Choudhuri lauds the interdisciplinary aspect of the UAS program. The reach extends to the rest of the campus, allowing for other colleges within the university to leverage cSETR’s aviation expertise and the drone program’s advanced platforms and sensors to conduct new research and compete for grants in their own areas of expertise, thereby increasing UTEP’s research portfolio. The campus can benefit from systems similar to those used by many defense contractors, he said.

“This is proof of our ability to bring different engineering backgrounds together to solve complex problems,” Choudhuri said. “We are not only a part of a national evolution, we are at the forefront. UTEP will be prepared to meet the workforce needs of the technological shift that will lead the next few decades.”

Author:  Pablo Villa – UTEP Communications

Engineering and Computer Science Students Develop Unmanned Systems Technology

Engineering and computer science students have had a hand in The University of Texas at El Paso’s ascent to the forefront of unmanned systems technology.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) experts from UTEP’s NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR) have leveraged the efforts of 30 computer science and electrical and mechanical engineering students to develop very long range unmanned aircraft systems technology.

Since January 2018, cSETR has led a team of leaders from El Paso County, the City of El Paso, El Paso International Airport and many other regional government entities in a partnership with California-based AirMap, a global airspace management platform for drones, for the system’s implementation.

The system initially became operational in March, tracking all participating manned and unmanned aircraft. The system will be fully operational by the end of the summer, tracking cooperative and uncooperative manned and unmanned aircraft.

As part of the effort to arrive at full capacity, UTEP students have been busy wiring sensors, bolstering network connections and modifying drones under the guidance of Rodrigo Romero, Ph.D., associate professor of practice in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Jack Chessa, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Salamah Salamah, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Computer Science.

The students’ work has been vital to the overall effort, which is geared toward enhancing public safety, said Michael McGee, Ph.D., cSETR senior research associate.

“This team of faculty and students from many different disciplines within UTEP is on the leading edge of the unmanned aviation industry,” McGee said. “The capability of the unmanned systems they are developing is absolutely impressive and is more advanced than any systems available commercially. Their work is establishing UTEP and El Paso as a national leader in this new industry.”

For students, the opportunity to contribute to such a critical infrastructure project has proved rewarding.

“It’s an honor, for sure, to be able to participate in a project such as this one,” said Cesar Valenzuela, a senior electrical engineering major. “It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done as a student.”

Valenzuela, along with other electrical engineering students, has been charged with modifying drones to ensure they can be outfitted with devices that provide connections to servers and network antennas. These drones will assist UTEP researchers to track low-altitude traffic and ensure the UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system is operating correctly and efficiently. For his part, Valenzuela said he has spent much time wielding a soldering iron as part of his work on the project. More importantly, he said he has learned the value of interdisciplinary work.

“It’s nice to be working with other departments besides electrical engineering,” Valenzuela said. “We’re learning to collaborate, communicate and coordinate in order to achieve a common goal, which is flying the drone.”

One of those collaborators is Andrea Villela. Villela is a senior mechanical engineering major. Her student group has focused on redesigning the base of cSETR drones to make them viable to deliver a payload and carry a range of sensors for research. These modifications allow UTEP researchers to identify potential problems for devices while they are in the air as well as provide other local government agencies with a view from above to help them meet various ends.

“I think that there’s a lot of new development and improvement in the aerospace industry,” Villela said. “I think that’s why a lot of mechanical engineers tend to be a part of the cSETR program. They want to be a part of the difference it is making in this world. I think it’s a great experience to have some hands-on work. I really like designing, manufacturing and being able to create something that the drone needs. It is something that is going to make an impact.”

While their contributions will directly impact the UTM installation, students also will receive benefits in return, said Noah Lopez, a senior electrical engineering major.

“Through the UTM, we get experience in a real-world project. That’s a plus,” Lopez said. “This experience will help me in my professional career. It has exposed me to things I wouldn’t have been exposed to.”

In the end, the aim of the UTM system is enhancing public safety, McGee said.

Drone use by public users throughout the United States has risen significantly during the past few years, a trend that is expected to continue. There are currently more than 1,000 drones in El Paso registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. The actual number of drones in El Paso is likely much larger since not all owners register their aircraft with the FAA.

The primary focus of the UTM system is to increase safety throughout the Paso del Norte region. Mid-air collisions between manned and unmanned aircraft in low-altitude airspace are a significant concern. This UTM system will allow for increased situational awareness for pilots of manned and unmanned aircraft, thus increasing community safety. The secondary focus of the UTM system is to facilitate safe and efficient drone operations, increasing public safety, and attracting more high technology opportunities for UTEP students.

Some of the societal benefits from utilization of the UTM infrastructure include helping farmers increase production by identifying problems in crops more quickly, clearing traffic accidents faster, inspecting critical infrastructure without putting people at risk, helping firefighters combat blazes more effectively, assisting in search-and-rescue missions, and checking buildings to identify energy efficiency issues.

“The efforts to develop advanced capability long-range and long-endurance drones to support research and the further implementation of the area unmanned traffic management system will continue to accelerate at UTEP,” McGee said.

Author: Pablo Villa – UTEP Communications

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