Montana Colleges Launching Unmanned Aerial System Project

By Beacon Staff

As part of an effort to court an industry with enormous potential for growth, Whitefish state Sen. Ryan Zinke is co-director of a project focused on bringing unmanned aerial systems, or drones, to Montana for testing and research.

“Unmanned aircraft systems have changed military aviation,” Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander, said, “and it will change civilian aviation.”

“I think Montana has an opportunity to leverage the ‘Big Sky’ to bring about that change,” he added.

Zinke foresees a vast array of applications for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), including using the drones to track wildlife populations, assess beetle-killed forests, optimize fertilizer application for crops, determine winter snowpack and assist search and rescue teams, among others. And he believes Montana, with its varied topography and abundant airspace that would be less expensive to fly in than existing facilities, make it an ideal location to encourage a nascent industry to take root.

Earlier this month representatives of several Montana colleges signed an agreement to create a UAS “Center of Excellence,” with MSU-Northern, in Havre, serving as the administrative headquarters and an institution focused on biofuel research. MSU Bozeman’s engineering department, the aviation program of Rocky Mountain College in Billings and Mississippi State University’s ability to conduct maritime research make up the other parts of the collaboration.

“We do know the UAS market itself is the fastest growing market in avionics,” Greg Kegel, dean of MSU-Northern’s College of Technology said.

Key to the arrangement is MSU-Northern’s proximity to the large Hayes military operations air space, which spans much of central and northeastern Montana and which, according to Zinke, has been underused since the end of the Cold War. The research center is in the process of applying for a grant to conduct a feasibility study on the project. Then it’s a matter of asking the military for permission to test the drones in the Hayes air space, and for the Federal Aviation Administration to designate the area a “Center of Excellence,” thus paving the way for future grants, research initiatives and corporate partnerships.

Safely integrating the use of unmanned aircraft with commercial and private air traffic is an essential part of the industry’s development, making Montana a promising place to begin these relationships.

“That’s why we think the Hayes MOA is a good place to do research – so we don’t affect general aviation at all,” Zinke said. “Our approach is more incremental, it’s based on a program of steps to get there, but we are going to get there.”

For Zinke, the project also represents an opportunity to create jobs without relying solely on Montana’s traditional, natural-resource-heavy industries, but to attempt to grow something new.

“Montana has a legacy of short-term thinking and letting our resources go downstream without value-adding anything,” he said. “This is a forward-looking industry.”

Though the project isn’t focused on the Flathead Valley, Zinke said some local small technology firms could work on batteries used in propulsion systems, optics and other programming innovations needed in the industry.

As a Special Forces commander in Iraq, he had authority over a number of UAS platforms.

“Then, when I came back to Montana and looked, it was clear to me there were applications outside of the military for these platforms,” Zinke said, though he was careful to specify that civilian drones are significantly smaller and lighter than the military versions, comparing it to the difference between an F-18 jet and a Piper Cub plane.

But the industry developing around these new civilian applications, building upon technology developed by the military, is likely to grow. If everything goes according to plan, Zinke thinks there could be drones flying in Montana by the end of the summer.

“It’s about technology and the right kind of jobs,” he said. “It’s about cultivating a forward-looking environment that is high-tech.”

“This is my way of getting the right people together in order to create something,” Zinke added.

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