Small planes in the Big Sky may expand U.S. military capabilities, spot illegal aliens, and judge wheat’s maturity. If this dream is realized, the craft will have one thing in common – none will have a pilot.
The idea struck Ryan Zinke during his quest to lure high tech industry to Montana. Zinke is a military hero, a member of the original Seal Team 6 with two Bronze Stars for valor and meritorious service.
Seal Team 6 fought some of the bloodiest battles in Bosnia and Afghanistan, thwarted a Somali pirate attack and killed Osama Bin Laden.
State Sen. Zinke realized Montana had an outstanding asset – 700,000 square miles of the Big Sky. This patch of blue runs from Glasgow to Malmstrom Air Base to Lewistown and is closed to nonmilitary civilian aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration calls it a “Military Operational Air Space.” It’s a no-flight zone for civilian airplanes.
Drones are pilotless craft very much in the news lately from the Middle East, where the United States uses them to attack Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan.
The FAA was interested in exploring commercial application for planes without pilots. This research would require a fleet of drone pilots.
Zinke met with Rocky Mountain College president Mike Mace.
Rocky’s aviation program made it a natural candidate for participation in the drone project. Since Rocky already produces pilots who sit in cockpits, it would have a leg up in training pilots who sit at desks.
RMC partnered with Montana State University and Mississippi State University. Rocky’s task would be development of a curriculum for the training program. Together the three schools crafted the application for the FAA to fund the pilot training project.
Mississippi State is interested in exploring drone use in meteorology. Imagine a small plane flying head on into a hurricane raging at sea with a cargo of high tech instruments and no pilot aboard. Once it had reached the eye of the storm, it might fly in circles, giving scientists ashore ample time to take their readings. It might even spiral up and out of the storm through its eye.
Cruising down the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, a drone might fly close to the crags, measuring snow depth and density without endangering the pilot working the controls while ensconced behind a desk in a warm office building 500 miles away.
Mississippi State’s sophisticated engineering program sparked a desire to test certain materials in aircraft construction.
Montana State was interested in battery life, ag management and firefighting experiments.
Mace said he believes the project will provide exposure to research for Rocky’s undergrads. Student pilots may be able to gain air time and earn pay for fuel costs flying “seek and avoid” missions. In these exercises, manned aircraft tag along after drones, watching for obstacles ahead and warning the remote pilot.
The demand for drone pilots has exploded. Currently the military trains more pilots to fly unmanned aircraft than the old-fashioned kind.
Unmanned aircraft will soon (and suddenly) vie for a major share of civilian aviation, Zinke said. Military models range from one pound to 40,000 pounds.
Costs range from a few thousand dollars to tens of millions. The big ones carry major cargo, including loads of retardant to snuff major forest fires.
Smaller ones are used to find a unit under fire and deliver a small-but-vital package of medical supplies into its midst.
The rapid advance of high tech sensors allows smaller and smaller drones to carry sensitive instruments. Smaller spells cheaper in most aviation operations. A drone leaves behind the pilot, the controls and the cockpit built to protect him. Make that “a lot smaller” and “a lot cheaper.”
Look for drones to supply regular patrols of oil and gas pipelines.