U.S. Department of Transportation Announces $5.8 Million in 33 Unmanned Aircraft System Research Grants to Universities

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announces $5.8 million in research, education and training grants to universities that comprise FAA’s Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE).

“These universities are making great strides in advancing the Department’s efforts to integrate UAS safely and efficiently into our nation’s airspace system, ultimately delivering new transportation solutions and economic benefits for the American people,” Acting U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Steven G. Bradbury, says.

The FAA’s Center of Excellence for UAS is advancing the administration’s transportation and economic goals that air travel provides to the nation. The Center of Excellence UAS universities received a total of $5,822,990 to advance specific goals and projects.

“These universities are making great strides in advancing our efforts to safely and efficiently integrate UAS into our nation’s airspace system,” said FAA administrator, Steve Dickson. “Each grant is designed to explore the questions that will lead to greater UAS and unmanned air-carrier integration, which will ultimately deliver new transportation solutions and economic benefits for the American people.”

More than 1.7 million recreational and commercial drones are in the active UAS fleet. That number is expected to grow to as high as 2.31 million by 2024. The ASSURE grants are aimed at continuing and enhancing the safe and successful integration of drones into the nation’s airspace system (NAS).

The FAA has established 13 Centers of Excellence in critical topic areas focusing on:

  • unmanned aircraft systems
  • alternative jet fuels and environment
  • general aviation safety
  • commercial space transportation
  • airliner cabin environment and intermodal transportation research
  • aircraft noise and aviation emissions mitigation
  • advanced materials
  • general aviation research
  • airworthiness assurance
  • operations research
  • airport pavement and technology
  • computational modeling of aircraft structures
  • and technical training and human performance.

The first round of ASSURE grants for fiscal year (FY) 2021 were awarded for the following eight (8) research areas:

Air Carrier Operations — Investigate and Identify the Key Differences Between Commercial Air Carrier Operations and Unmanned Transport Operations

This research will provide findings, recommendations and lessons learned that will enhance the FAA’s understanding of the requirements for certifying large UAS for air-carrier operations. Specific focus of this evaluation will analyze projected demand by location (e.g. rural, exurb, suburb, or urban) and the feasibility of commercial UAS air-carrier operations. It will also explore the role of autonomy in UAS vehicles, beginning with operations in less risky areas, such as rural locations, to exurbs (areas beyond the suburbs), and then on to more populated areas of suburban and metro areas. This exploration will focus on the passenger transportation environment and investigate the workforce impact of this new capability.

  • Kansas State University, Lead University — $220,000
  • University of Alaska, Fairbanks — $150,000
  • North Carolina State University — $150,000
  • University of North Dakota — $130,000
  • The Ohio State University — $149,745


UAS Cargo Operations — From Manned Cargo to UAS Cargo Operations: Future Trends, Performance, Reliability and Safety Characteristics Towards Integration into the NAS

This research will evaluate the feasibility of commercial UAS cargo operations together with the projected demand by location. Furthermore, the research will detail anticipated needs of the FAA to support further integration of UAS cargo operations, including how greater autonomy may provide an improved level of safety.

  • University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Lead University — $240,000
  • Kansas State University — $125,000
  • University of Alabama, Huntsville — $124,987
  • North Carolina State University — $125,000
  • University of North Dakota — $60,000
  • The Ohio State University — $124,996


High-Bypass UAS Engine Ingestion Test

Inclusion of large numbers of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) into the NAS may pose unique hazards to manned aircraft. It is necessary to determine the potential severity of sUAS mid-air collisions with manned aircraft to define an equivalent level of safety for UAS operations. Since sUAS are not similar to any other foreign body (e.g. bird, ice, volcanic ash) that the FAA currently regulates, understanding the severity of an ingestion is critical to being able to estimate the extent of potential damage.

  • The Ohio State University, Lead University — $340,000
  • Wichita State University — $100,000


Small UAS (sUAS) Mid-Air Collision (MAC) Likelihood

This research focuses on sUAS MAC likelihood analysis with general aviation (GA) and commercial aircraft. Because severity research varies based on where a collision occurred on a manned aircraft, this likelihood research will not only look at the probability of a MAC but also the likelihood of colliding with different parts of a manned aircraft.

  • Wichita State University, Lead University — $464,000
  • Kansas State University — $220,000
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — $215,000
  • University of Kansas — $160,000


Mitigating GPS and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Risks for UAS

This research is necessary to enable safe and secure automated sUAS navigation and safe and secure automated sUAS detect-and-avoid operations. Unvalidated or unavailable GPS and ADS-B-In data poses security and safety risks to automated UAS navigation and to detect-and-avoid operations. Erroneous, spoofed, jammed or drop-outs of GPS data may result in unmanned aircraft position and navigation being incorrect.

  • University of North Dakota, Lead University — $325,000
  • Kansas State University — $135,000
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — $135,000
  • Oregon State University — $100,000
  • University of Alaska, Fairbanks — $135,000


Shielded UAS Operations — Detect and Avoid (DAA)

This research is intended to identify risks and recommend solutions to the FAA that can enable shielded UAS operations, such as a flight within close proximity to existing obstacles and not to exceed the height of the obstacle. This effort will identify risks, determine whether shielded operations can be made safe and to what degree UAS detect-and-avoid requirements can be reduced, and recommend UAS standoff distances from manned aircraft and ground obstacles, including buildings and air traffic control towers.

  • University of North Dakota, Lead University — $430,000
  • Kansas State University — $110,000
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — $150,000
  • New Mexico State University — $140,000
  • North Carolina State University — $95,000


Validation of Visual Operation Standards for Small UAS (sUAS)

This research will measure visual observer (VO)/remote pilot (RP) performance in avoiding other aircraft and hazards, identify and estimate potential failures, and inform recommendations for training standards. The research will help the FAA and industry consensus standards bodies, such as American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), to better understand the safety performance and challenges associated with VO/RP visual line-of-sight operations to include extended visual line-of-sight (EVLOS). Under EVLOS, the small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is beyond the visual range of an observer but any manned aircraft are still within visual detection range of the ground observer. Research outcomes may also potentially inform recommendations for future regulatory updates to Part 107, the FAA's small UAS rule.

  • Kansas State University, Lead University — $190,000
  • Wichita State University — $120,000
  • Mississippi State University — $70,000
  • New Mexico State University — $120,000


UAS Flight Data Research in Support of Aviation Safety Information and Sharing (ASIAS)

This research will help pull together different flight-data sources, including high-quality UAS flight data, commercial- and general-aviation flight data, and surveillance data. This data will be utilized to enhance the development of safety case analyses for NAS stakeholders (e.g. operators, regulators and certification authorities) and to support the approval of new UAS operations in the NAS.

  • University of North Dakota, Lead University — $393,693
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — $75,569