In a project that could help the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) integrate drones into the national airspace, Montana State University professor Doug Cairns and a team that includes two high school students simulate drone-aircraft collisions using a giant slingshot.
Raferdy Samson of Hot Springs and Ethan Neff of Libby are living on the MSU Bozeman campus for four weeks while helping Cairns and his undergraduate and graduate students with the project. Cairns is with MSU’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.
The Montana Apprenticeship Program (MAP) encourages young people to pursue four-year college degrees and supports the inclusion and success of Native American and other underrepresented students, including those who are the first in their families to attend a four-year university in science and engineering fields.
The program is offered to Montana residents entering their junior and senior years of high school, introducing students to college coursework, research and careers. It is in line with the Montana University System’s goal of providing students, and potential students, with hands-on research experiences that expose them to cutting-edge techniques and ideas.
As more and more drones take to the skies — piloted by hobbyists seeking aerial photographs or professionals monitoring such things as wildfires — the FAA is forming standards to ensure the safety of other aircraft.
THE RESEARCH project that Cairns is conducting with his undergraduates and two high school students from Lincoln and Sanders counties will greatly aid in helping officials construct regulations in the future.
“We can’t do that unless we’re properly informed about what happens when a drone impacts an airplane,” said FAA program manager Michael Reininger, who visited the MSU test site on July 17
In the test, the drone shattered when it collided with the Cessna airplane, tearing the wing’s aluminum shell, popping rivets and leaving a grapefruit-sized dent.
No one was hurt in the crash, due to the fact that the detached wing was stationed at a MSU test facility near Bozeman, and the drone was launched into it using a giant slingshot.
“It hit right where we wanted it to,” said Cairns as he surveyed the damage.
The slingshot, with its playfully painted bucket, rugged metal frame and orange rubber strips that stretch taut with the help of an electric winch, “is a whimsical-looking thing,” said Cairns, though it is capable of launching the small remote-controlled aircraft at speeds up to 165 mph.
“There’s science behind it,” he further stated.
The rivet-popping collision was one of many that Cairns’ team will create this summer for a project partly funded by the FAA.
“Our ultimate goal is to safely integrate drones into the national airspace,” said Reininger.
THIS YEAR, the FAA selected MSU as one of three universities to fund for ASSURE’s educational outreach activities. As a result, two Montana high-school students are contributing to the MSU drone research through the Montana Apprenticeship Program, which is coordinated through the Empower program in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.
“It has been nice to work alongside college students as if I were one,” Neff said soon after he pulled a nylon cord to trigger one of three drone launches for the day.
According to Cairns, drone research is a new field, and even casual observations during the drone-smashing can provide valuable information.
One drone started billowing smoke shortly after it was launched into the metal plate, likely as a result of a damaged battery.
“If that were embedded in the wing of a plane, it wouldn’t be pretty, birds don’t do that,” said Cairns of the smoking drone.
“That’s a highly successful test,” said Reininger when he approached for a closer look.
“Anyone want to roast marshmallows?” Samson joked as he paused from locating drone pieces strewn during the collision.
This summer’s internship with the MAP program is Samson’s second, and he said that he hopes to enroll at MSU and continue the research with Cairns.