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Progress of Unmanned Aerial Systems Program at UTEP is Soaring

Last Updated on November 09, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published November 09, 2018

By Pablo Villa

UTEP Communications

Michael McGee, Ph.D., is comfortable with the pursuit of lofty goals.

Michael McGee, Ph.D., center, stands with students from The University of Texas at El Paso's NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR). McGee, a research associate with cSETR, is leading their work in unmanned aerial systems.
Michael McGee, Ph.D., center, stands with students from The University of Texas at El Paso's NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR). McGee, a research associate with cSETR, is leading their work in unmanned aerial systems.

The senior research associate with The University of Texas at El Paso's NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR) put that notion on display throughout a 20-year career with the U.S. Air Force and subsequent success in private industry as a senior policy researcher.

But his latest undertaking is just as towering. Since January 2018, McGee has led cSETR’s work in unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In less than a year, he has made UTEP the focal point of efforts to significantly improve public safety and bolster border security through the utilization of drone technology. His ability to bridge communication between various governmental agencies has not only elevated the heights of UTEP’s drone program, it has also increased the campus’ footprint.

Test Site Bravo in Tornillo, Texas, on the eastern fringe of El Paso County, will serve as the flight test range for cSETR’s burgeoning UAS program. The new test site will see a runway and completion of other test and evaluation infrastructure development within the next two years. The center already has grown its UAS fleet to 11 state-of-the-art aircraft and expanded laboratory facilities to support UAS research and development. UTEP’s growth in east El Paso County represents the realization of efforts to turn the region into a vital component to meet the workforce needs of a rapidly-growing segment of the aerospace industry.

“I am grateful to be part of an institution that takes a very unique look at higher education,” McGee said. “I also relish the opportunity to work on a project that is critical to the development of our nation, both from a technological standpoint and as a provider for the workforce needs of the 21st century.”

McGee brings a wealth of aviation experience to UTEP. He is an accomplished F-16 Falcon pilot who flew more than 1,500 missions and served a number of combat and command tours in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The aptitude he displayed at high altitude eventually led to a four-year stint as an instructor at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School — known as Top Gun — at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

After retiring from the military, McGee joined the RAND Corporation, where he focuses on a variety of civilian and military aviation, defense and security related subjects for the Department of Defense and other government agencies.

His decades of flight experience have been significantly beneficial in the establishment of the UAS program at UTEP due to his knowledge of application of technological advancements to aircraft and sensors, his attention to the safety aspects of flight and their importance in aerospace research, and his ability to navigate the regulatory processes associated with aviation.

His extensive knowledge and national connections made him an exceptional choice to lead the UAS program, said Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., UTEP associate vice president for strategic initiatives and cSETR’s founding director.

“Our center began with a focus on rocket propulsion, and we still conduct very significant work in that aspect,” Choudhuri said. “But as time passes, research centers evolve. We have seen a tremendous need, nationally, for unmanned aerial system drones. This is a natural expansion from what cSETR currently does, and it represents an industry that will dominate the workforce needs of the future. We wanted to be at the forefront of that challenge and we wanted to actively build our UAS program. But we needed the right person. We wanted someone who believes in UTEP’s mission, first, but also someone who has the expertise and national connections to get it off the ground. Mike brings both of those aspects to the job.”

McGee’s impact was felt immediately. In March, he led a team of leaders from El Paso County, the City of El Paso, El Paso International Airport and many other regional government entities in a partnership with California-based AirMap, a global airspace management platform for drones, in installation of the country’s first countywide-area operational low-altitude UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system. The system initially became operational in March, providing critical deconfliction between manned and unmanned aircraft. 

“Over the past few years, the number of unmanned systems in the U.S. has grown significantly. Unfortunately, the federal government currently can’t ensure deconfliction between manned and unmanned aircraft in this low altitude airspace,” McGee said. “We have civilian and government operators that fly manned aircraft in this same low-altitude environment every day of the year. We also have an international border to the south and restricted airspace to the north because of Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range. So, all of the region’s air traffic funnels over our city. When you start to mix unmanned systems and manned systems in the same low-altitude airspace, it becomes a public safety hazard. We had two choices: either wait for the federal government to come up with a solution or combine research capabilities here at UTEP and the partnerships in aviation of all the region’s local, state and federal organizations that all have significant requirements to improve safety. That’s how we arrived at the UTM.”

Since then, he has continued to build relationships with local emergency responders as well as state and federal agencies in efforts to enhance public safety and border security throughout the region. That work is being funded by a $480,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

“El Paso is very unique in that we are a large urban island,” McGee said. “We are a long way from Dallas, Phoenix, and Albuquerque. This created an opportunity for all these agencies to work together to develop this program. We have a close partnership with all those federal, state and local agencies. We are actively conducting research to help increase the safety of our region.”

An outgrowth of that research has been the integration of capabilities from interdisciplinary research within the drone program. McGee said “cSETR’s main unmanned aviation focus is advanced research on long-range and long-endurance autonomous aircraft, advanced sensor integration, and autonomous aircraft able to operate in confined, GPS-denied environments.”

Angel Flores-Abad, Ph.D., research assistant professor with cSETR, is developing a method to perform close-range inspections of power plants and other structures using drones. Flores said his navigation system will be able to safely move drones within one foot of structures to inspect their integrity and assess damage. His work is funded through a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“This is an example of a novel technology, developed through our unmanned aerial systems program, that will allow us to focus on power-plant inspection and maintenance,” Flores said. “It will reduce costs of operation and protect the critical energy infrastructure of the United States. You can see how unmanned systems play a very critical role in public safety.”

Choudhuri lauds the interdisciplinary aspect of the UAS program. The reach extends to the rest of the campus, allowing for other colleges within the university to leverage cSETR’s aviation expertise and the drone program’s advanced platforms and sensors to conduct new research and compete for grants in their own areas of expertise, thereby increasing UTEP’s research portfolio. The campus can benefit from systems similar to those used by many defense contractors, he said.

“This is proof of our ability to bring different engineering backgrounds together to solve complex problems,” Choudhuri said. “We are not only a part of a national evolution, we are at the forefront. UTEP will be prepared to meet the workforce needs of the technological shift that will lead the next few decades.”