Auburn to contribute to national center exploring unmanned flight

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A newly approved center devoted to unmanned aircraft systems will draw on Auburn University expertise.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced May 8 that a Mississippi State University-led team of 19 universities and more than 100 industry and government partners will operate a new National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Auburn University is an associate member of Mississippi State's Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence, or ASSURE, consortium. Congress appropriated $5 million for the five-year Center of Excellence agreement, which will be supplemented by team members.

The center will initially capitalize on the aviation safety expertise of Auburn University's Howard "Earle" Thompson. Thompson, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, served as an A-10, A-37B and F-16 pilot during his 36-year military career. Col. Thompson also supports Auburn's aviation education programs as an instructor of aviation safety and airspace management courses in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business. Once the Center of Excellence is established, Auburn's Aviation Center, Department of Aerospace Engineering and other units are also likely to contribute.

"UAS is truly an interdisciplinary field," said Auburn University Aviation Center Director Bill Hutto. "You have engineering, public policy, safety, data analytics, a supply chain component and applications in agriculture, forestry, building science and the like. The uses of this technology are going to only be limited by the imagination. For Auburn University to be involved with this team really presents us with the ability to carry forth the longstanding tradition of providing aviation education in an interdisciplinary fashion."

The ASSURE partnership will address challenges related to the regulation and implementation of unmanned aircraft systems in a variety of settings. "This world-class, public-private partnership will help us focus on the challenges and opportunities of this cutting-edge technology," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. "We expect this team will help us to educate and train a cadre of unmanned aircraft professionals well into the future."

The FAA expects the Center of Excellence to begin research by September and be fully operational by January. While the center's work will be concentrated at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, research will take place at other member institutions.

Other ASSURE consortium members include Drexel University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kansas State University, Montana State University, New Mexico State University, North Carolina State University, Oregon State University, the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the University of Kansas, the University of North Dakota and Wichita State University.

Indiana State University, Louisiana Tech University, Tuskegee University, Canada's Concordia University and the University of Southampton (United Kingdom) are associate members.

In April, Auburn received permission from the FAA to operate the nation's first commercial UAS flight school.

"Being involved with the ASSURE team provides an opportunity for continued research and development related to the burgeoning UAS industry in Alabama and the United States," Hutto said. "The research capabilities of Auburn, combined with being the nation's first UAS flight school, truly presents us with an opportunity to be on the leading edge of this technology."

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.