April 23, 2012

Drones flying in Kansas skies as well

When most people hear the term “drone,” they are likely to think of the small unmanned aircraft used to fly military missions in places like Afghanistan. But drones are used in Kansas as well and for purposes other than war.

When most people hear the term “drone,” they are likely to think of the small unmanned aircraft used to fly military missions in places like Afghanistan. But drones are used in Kansas as well and for purposes other than war.

The city of Herington and Kansas State University hold active FAA licenses to use drones, according to a list published recently by the Wall Street Journal. The list accompanied a WSJ article reporting that more than 50 organizations in the United States, including police departments and universities, have been approved to use the aircraft, which are remotely controlled.

Until the Herington program had to return three drones to the Kansas National Guard or federal government this past June, it had been involved in an economic-development project using the drones. Kansas State University uses drones for research.

For a few years beginning around 2008, the program in Herington, a city of about 2,500 in north-central Kansas, got to use three drones through the Kansas National Guard, said Herington City Manager Ron Strickland Sr.

The Kansas National Guard loaned the drones to the Herington program, but laws changed, making them restricted government property, and the Herington program could no longer use the aircraft, said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department.

Strickland described the three drones as unmanned air cargo vehicles made in Canada, each about 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, with a parasail instead of a wing.

The idea of the Herington program was to create jobs and boost the economy by drawing companies to Herington to use the drones to test various kinds of equipment that can be launched, including surveillance equipment, Strickland said.

For $1, the city contracted with a retired Army lieutenant colonel who lived in the Herington area and had used the drones in the military overseas, Strickland said. In war zones, drones have been used to drop everything from leaflets to bombs.

Officials obtained certification to use the Herington airport to fly the craft, which can be launched from the ground or air. At one point, Herington was considering deploying them to help with Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese nuclear emergency, Strickland said. The aircraft can be used to help with communications and deliver equipment and supplies, including food and fuel, in emergencies, at a fraction of the cost of using manned aircraft.

Strickland said the Herington program supporters were “very disappointed” about federal restrictions that withdrew the drones from Herington’s use last summer just as the program was about to get into full swing. Residents thought it was cool that their small city was involved in such a project, he said.

Now, he’s hoping that some other kind of drones could be brought in to kick-start the program.

Of the three drones that had been loaned to the Herington program, one remains in the Kansas National Guard’s possession and likely will go to a Kansas museum, one has gone to the Kansas National Guard Museum and one to the Combat Air Museum, both at Forbes Field in Topeka, said Watson, the adjutant general’s spokeswoman. The latter two drones are on loan from the federal government, she said.

Watson identified the drones as the CQ-10A SnowGoose. That model is “restricted by the federal government due to their specific capabilities, but the city of Herrington could own a different type” of drone, she said in an e-mail. “There are some commercial models available. Depending on their size, there are requirements for FAA licensure and registration.”

So far, the Guard has not used drones in disaster responses but has discussed using them in those situations, she said.

Kansas State University has about a dozen drones, ranging in weight from 2 pounds to just under 50 pounds, said Josh Brungardt, unmanned aircraft systems program director at K-State-Salina. The small size allows researchers to deploy the equipment quickly, without having to use facilities such as runways.

The university uses drones for research on how to integrate various kinds of aircraft in airspace and for research on disasters and searches and rescues, Brungardt said.

“We specialize in civilian use of drones, not military use of drones,” he said.

Some of the research, for example, looks at how to use equipment on drones to find tornado victims.

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