ASSURE Invites Virginia Tech to Join International Drone Research Alliance

Virginia Tech has been invited to join an elite consortium of universities to lead research that will help guide the safe integration of uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), or drones, into the national and international transportation infrastructure. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence, or ASSURE, led by Mississippi State, is a research powerhouse that comprises 26 U.S. and global universities and more than 100 partners across industry and government. The FAA leverages the talents of this alliance to conduct critical research needed for drone integration efforts.

Virginia Tech’s induction is the latest recognition of the university’s leadership in an area that is rapidly moving into the national spotlight as applications for autonomous systems, including drones, evolve from futuristic concepts into real, functional services. 

“Since federal work began to integrate drones into the airspace, Virginia has been out in front,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. “Thanks to the research and testing happening at Virginia Tech, Virginia has been the site of numerous landmark achievements in the drone industry, a source of data that has informed important federal policy decisions, and a place where drone companies want to pioneer their most ambitious projects. Working with ASSURE will expand Virginia Tech’s capacity to contribute to the development and deployment of systems that have the potential to dramatically improve quality of life and drive continued U.S. technological competitiveness.” 

ASSURE’s research encompasses a wide range of technical and operational topics critical to successful drone integration, including traffic management, communications, pilot training, and software interoperability, among many others. These research questions will lay the foundation for determining what these systems are capable of, how to incorporate them safely in airspace where traditional aircraft already operate, and how to build the physical and technological infrastructure needed to allow a more diverse, complex aviation ecosystem to run smoothly for the benefit of society.  

Virginia Tech, with multiple top-ranked research programs and one of seven FAA-designated drone test sites, has a long track record of leadership in autonomous systems. Researchers and faculty members all over the university are deeply engaged in innovation and discovery that dovetails directly with the topics central to ASSURE’s mission.  

Virginia Tech’s membership was announced at an event hosted by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, where researchers from the College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences had the opportunity to discuss their drone-related projects with ASSURE leadership.

“Our researchers have achieved global recognition for their work in these areas,” said Dan Sui, the university’s senior vice president for research and innovation, who also spoke at the event. “From fundamental research on the foundational technologies enabling autonomous systems to ingenious applications that demonstrate just how profoundly they can impact society, to the cybersecurity solutions that will safeguard them — all of this research is thriving at Virginia Tech and we’re honored that it can contribute to the important work ASSURE is doing.” 

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership manages the university’s FAA-designated test site and a team in the federal BEYOND initiative that has been celebrated for its ability to launch successful pilot programs centered on real-world applications such as the drone delivery service Wing operates in Christiansburg. The test site has also been tapped by the FAA to lead major research efforts on drone traffic management and evaluate technologies that can allow drones to detect and avoid other aircraft — both crucial components of permitting more extensive operations in airspace where crewed aircraft may already be flying. And its collaboration with researchers in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics yielded FAA-approved test methods that created a pathway for drone manufacturers to take advantage of a new rule for drone flights over people.

The test site has worked with ASSURE in the past on standardized processes for establishing the safety of new operations as well as on drone impact risk research led by the University of Alabama in Huntsville. 

“We’re thrilled to welcome Virginia Tech to ASSURE,” said Stephen Luxion, ASSURE’s executive director. “Their research on operational practices, safety management, sensor testing, injury risk analysis, communications, and a host of other issues has already moved the needle on drone integration in the U.S. There is truly exceptional work happening here that complements the exceptional work being produced by ASSURE. I’m excited to see what we’ll be able to accomplish together.” 

By Eleanor Nelson

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