Salina When the bill for sending two Kansas State University at Salina staff members for training on new equipment hit the accounting office at the main campus in Manhattan, it looked like some kind of joke.
"What the heck are you doing in Latvia shooting penguins off catapults?" the accountant asked in a phone call to Josh Brungardt, director of KSU-Salina's Unmanned Aircraft Systems program.
Brungardt explained that the university had just acquired two Penguin B unmanned aerial vehicles, which are made by UAV Factory of Latvia, and staff needed training to be able to properly launch them into flight with a specially designed catapult.
Brungardt discussed the Penguin B and others of the 12 unmanned aircraft maintained on the Salina campus as part of the university's UAS program Thursday at the quarterly luncheon of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Council.
Although the university's research emphasis is on commercial and civil applications of the unmanned technology, Brungardt said students who have earned certificates or are working on bachelor's degrees in the field have been hired even prior to graduation and promised six-figure incomes with companies that contract with the U.S. military to provide surveillance in countries such as Afghanistan.
"We're not graduating students fast enough," he said. "They are actually getting hired before they finish school."
Use of predator drones in strikes on suspected members of al-Qaida has dominated recent news about unmanned aircraft, but Brungardt said the technology is developing in many ways that will be helpful in civilian settings with search and rescue and emergency response.
He said drones were used to collect information about the level of radioactivity after the nuclear disaster in Japan, took aerial surveillance of the devastation after hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti and sought hot spots while fighting forest fires in California. In Alaska, drones have been used to find routes through sea ice for stranded ships, he said.
In Kansas, the most likely use would be for emergency response following a devastating tornado, he said. If the technology had been available when Greensburg was hit, that probably would have qualified, he said.
Brungardt said that, in an emergency situation that involved threat to life, a new location for surveillance drones to fly to could be authorized within an hour. In the four years since K-State began offering the program that situation has never arisen.
"We would love to have that scenario, but we would hate to have that scenario," he said.
He said drones were requested to search for leaks in a levee system near Leavenworth after a recent flood, but the FAA denied the request because it wasn't a matter of life and death.
At KSU-Salina, students learn to fly and maintain the drones, manage communication with the aircraft and analyze information collected. They earn a private pilot and instrument certification in manned aviation, as well.
They also learn to make judgment calls about what type of UAV is needed in a given situation and what type of equipment it should carry.
The Aerosonde Mk 4.7, which Brungardt had on display, has a wingspan of 11.8 feet and can stay aloft for up to 20 hours, but it requires about one and a half hours of preparation by a team of three or four people before it can fly, Brungardt said.
By contrast, a drone helicopter built at K-State can be ready to fly in three minutes, but it can stay up for only about 20 minutes carrying cameras and other sensors and beaming information back to ground controllers.
Brungardt said the problem with UAVs currently is that "there's not a person inside to see other aircraft, birds, towers or other obstacles to have collision avoidance." He said research is ongoing to resolve that problem through use of improved navigation systems.
In the meantime, he said, areas where drones can fly are limited to locations such as Crisis City or the Salina Municipal Airport, where the university has received an FAA Certificate of Authorization to fly. Without a certificate, air space is not open to use of drones in the United States.
He said Hollywood movies have over-dramatized the purposes for drones, showing them flying into windows and invading people's privacy.
"Ever since I was a kid, windows have had screens on them," he said. Also, he said, the aircraft would crash inside a building without GPS signals for navigation.
"They would be more likely to use binoculars," he said.