Liberty University’s aeronautics program was “a key contributor” to Virginia Tech’s successful proposal to study unmanned aircraft, or drones, for the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the Tech program’s director.

The FAA announced last week it had chosen six proposals, from institutions in several states, to study ways for unmanned vehicles to fly safely in American airspace.

Liberty already is training pilots to operate the craft remotely and was a logical participant in developing the Virginia Tech proposal, said Jon Greene, associate director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Tech.

The FAA study doesn’t involve the airborne Predator weapons used in war but rather the sort of miniature aircraft envisioned recently by Amazon.com for delivering merchandise.

Civil liberties advocates said the tiny vehicles also could invade privacy, using miniature cameras, microphones and heat sensors that already exist in less-mobile forms.

But advocates for unmanned vehicles see a plethora of business opportunities and public-safety improvements in the rising wave of technology.

Virginia Tech’s role in the FAA-approved studies concentrates on possible failures in an aircraft’s control system.

John Marselus, associate dean of flight operations for the Liberty University School of Aeronautics, said he spent hours on conference calls with people he’d never met during the past year as they brainstormed the Virginia Tech presentation to the FAA. Twenty-five entities competed for the FAA’s approval, he said.

The project seeks to develop an unmanned vehicle that can, on its own, detect and avoid everything from a flock of geese to another aircraft, Greene said.

Tech is hoping to test the technology, possibly in the hands of Liberty students and possibly at a military site such as Fort Pickett near Blackstone, Greene said.

Drone aircraft operated by the Department of Defense already fly at Fort Pickett, Greene said, but there’s no approval yet to use that airspace for the civilian testing envisioned by the FAA proposal.

But once first-phase testing has been completed on a secure military site, Greene said, the next step would involve testing the vehicles in a more congested airspace.

That’s where another of Tech’s partners on the proposal, Rutgers University in New Jersey, would take an active role of testing the equipment in the more congested airspace of the Northeast, Greene said.

The University of Maryland also is a participant in Virginia Tech’s proposal to the FAA, Greene said.

Each university brought complimentary skills and capabilities that “made us a compelling team” for the FAA, Greene said.

Marselus, a retired Air Force colonel who flew jet fighters and commanded two air operations centers, said the FAA project has rich potential in areas such as farming, firefighting and public safety.

For example, the ground crews that fight wildfires in the West could watch a fire’s movement on a video monitor and predict where to set up fire lines while keeping their personnel safe, Marselus said.

In another example, a drone craft could gather data above a nuclear-disaster site such as the power plant in Japan that was destroyed by a tsunami, he said.

Unmanned aircraft have the potential to open up a whole new area of commerce in America, Marselus said.

“Other countries are allowing unmanned aircraft to fly in their airspace,” Marselus said.

“We want to ensure safe airspace, but we need to allow our own industries to have access” so they can conduct research and development, he said.

“It’s important to figure this out because it will save lives and maintain the technological edge we enjoy in this country,” Marselus said.

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