Research and Education for Optimizing the Development and Implementation of an Unmanned Aircraft Program at the Nebraska Department of Transportation

It has recently become legal to fly Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in US airspace for commercial purposes. This stems from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization act that enacted by Congress and signed into law in 2012, which included a specific, but little-known provision directing the FAA to develop regulations to bring UAS into US airspace by Sept 30, 2015 (actual timeframe was circa August 2016). The confluence of new UAS regulations that allow commercial unmanned aerial operations, and a thriving U.S. economy, leads to the reality that UAS opportunities in surface transportation will expand significantly in the next decade and beyond. The opening of National Air Space to UAS has the potential to be a “game changer” for the surface transportation industry, much like global positioning system (GPS), geographic information system (GIS), and associated information technologies. UAS will offer an unparalleled opportunity to place sensors, robotics, and advanced information systems at desired locations for increasing productivity, improving efficiency, and enhancing safety of surface transport systems. The commercial market for UAS is expected to triple in the next 5 years, with a projected increase to $42.5 billion by 2024 from a global perspective. Control of the National Air Space will be achieved through implementation of emerging NextGen technology aligned with Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM), which will be based on a GPS foundation. These developments present a compelling motivation for the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) to develop and implement an in-house unmanned aircraft program. It is generally accepted that the commercial use of unmanned aircraft, and their associated control and sensor systems, are a relatively recent phenomenon, with the recent promulgation of FAA Part 107 regulations, establishing a new Remote Pilot Certificate (circa August 2016). Never-the-less, there have been some agencies and organizations that have initiated the development and implementation of internal UAS programs to meet their needs. Some of these agencies and organizations include the US Department of Interior, University of Nebraska, North Carolina Department of Transportation, Alabama Department of Transportation, as well as a host of others, that are seeking to define a UAS ecosystem, within the given agency/organization. In addition, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has identified Unmanned Aircraft Systems as one of the innovations on their Every Day Counts (EDC-5) initiatives. The EDC-5 initiatives span 2019 and 2020, and are identified as innovations that can accelerate the delivery of highway projects and foster a culture of innovation within the transportation community. NDOT’s pursuit of developing an Unmanned Aircraft Program directly aligns with this. The goal of this project is to conduct research and education to optimize and document the development and implementation of a new unmanned aircraft program for the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT). To accomplish this goal, the Nebraska Unmanned Aircraft Innovation, Research and Education (NU-AIRE) laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will provide research and education for NDOT so that the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Manager and affiliated personnel are able to efficiently establish a successful and safe in-house UAS program. This initial phase of the effort will include research and education for: (1) Administrative policy development, (2) Training, and (3) Operations and Use Case analysis, with subsequent phases to be determined, based on status and need.