Mark Blanks is program manager for unmanned aircraft systems at Kansas State University-Salina’s Applied Aviation Research Center.
There, Blanks, 32, oversees the growth and development of the program and is responsible for flight operations and research.
“If it’s not a class, if it’s not teaching curriculum, then it’s me,” Blanks said. He’s in charge of projects, programs, research, grants, relationships with industry – a little bit of everything.
K-State has 12 types of unmanned aircraft systems and 24 units that range from 2.5 pounds to 55 pounds – classified as small unmanned aircraft, Blanks said.
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The school takes part in a variety of research projects related to unmanned aircraft.
For one, it has a project with the Federal Aviation Administration to study the airworthiness of the aircraft.
“We’re trying to certify a new type of aircraft, which is UAS using industry standards,” he said.
There’s much more that’s known about manned aircraft. “There’s still a good deal that we’re learning about what makes small, unmanned systems reliable,” he said.
K-State has also partnered with the National Institute for Aviation Research in Wichita on certification standards. And it’s working with the Bureau of Land Management on developing new sensors and data collection for the mapping of grasslands, plants and vegetation. That includes mapping of cultural and historic sites, such as Native American sites.
Blanks grew up in Tennessee and learned to fly at age 16. He earned his pilot’s certificate at age 17.
He earned an airframe and powerplant license and a bachelor’s degree in aerospace maintenance management from Middle Tennessee State University, then earned a master’s degree in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee Space Institute.
Blanks then worked for a small general aviation maintenance shop, where he was promoted to general manager, then joined a light sport aircraft firm, Jabiru Sport Aircraft, where he was in charge of certification.
In 2009, he joined the faculty of Middle Tennessee State as an aviation maintenance instructor, where he helped form the university’s unmanned aircraft systems program.
In 2012, he became interim director of the university’s UAS program.
When the position at K-State opened, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to apply, he said.
Blanks got the job and moved to Salina in January 2013.
He and his wife, Emily, have two children, ages 5 and almost 3.
When not working, he likes to play with his children. He also likes to hunt and fish, and do woodworking and photography.
Q. What do you like best about the unmanned aircraft industry?
A. There’s so much going on. There’s so much to be done, and there’s so much exciting stuff. A friend of mine said it’s revolutionary technology on an evolutionary path. That’s a pretty good definition. It has the possibility to change almost any industry out there – everything from agriculture to mapping and natural resources to journalism, cinematography, it goes on and on. … There’s an opportunity in this program to really shape the future of this entire industry.
Q. What’s your biggest challenge?
A. Everybody would cite the FAA for being slow. I don’t think that’s the biggest challenge. It’s the public’s perception of drones and the connotation of what they think they are. They can be used for good or bad, but the good certainly outweighs the bad. Educating the public about the good uses of unmanned aircraft is probably our biggest challenge. That’s why we do a whole lot of speaking at small and large regional groups. If the public really understood what we’re trying to do, things would progress much faster than what they have.
Q. What would you like the public to know?
A. I don’t think they understand how much good that can be done with an unmanned aircraft … saving lives, reducing risk, improving agricultural operations. It just goes on and on.
Q. You said Kansas is poised to be a major player in the industry. In fact you said it’s one of the top three states in the country for it. How so?
A. It’s such a huge opportunity for Kansas. Kansas has all the key strengths to be a major player in this industry – a strong aviation background, large open spaces … manufacturing facilities in Wichita. We also have one of the world’s leading unmanned aircraft programs here at K-State. … All the ingredients are there. That’s one of the reasons I moved to Kansas. Tennessee is a much higher population state, but the opportunities for unmanned aircraft are not near what they are here. Kansans should realize the opportunities that exist in a different market segment that goes along with aviation. We really need to grab the bull by the horn.
Q. Everyone is waiting for the FAA to get out the rules and regulations on small unmanned aircraft. What’s the status there?
A. The real breaking loose integration will be when the FAA releases its rules, which are coming very soon. We expect them by the end of the year … then they will be commented on and made into law another year later. We’re looking at 2016 at having commercial operations approved.