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The sky’s the limit: UNT unveils massive drone testing center

 University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk cuts the green ribbon during Thursday’s opening ceremony for the new drone testing facility at Discovery Park.
Courtesy photo
Pete Comparoni, UNT
University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk cuts the green ribbon during Thursday’s opening ceremony for the new drone testing facility at Discovery Park.

Dignitaries joined University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk on Thursday afternoon to marvel at the latest major addition to Discovery Park.

The UNT Advanced Air Mobility test facility is ready for business. And research.

The brand-new drone test facility is impossible to miss as you approach Discovery Park, and it’s visible from North Loop 288. It’s about four stories tall, almost half a football field long and 300 feet wide. For any golfers among the people gathered at the ribbon cutting, the test facility probably reminded them of the massive driving ranges with their soaring, net-like walls. But UNT’s air facility is also covered on top with mesh — making it an “indoor” site.

“This facility, it’s the tip of the iceberg for our faculty and students,” said Terrence Pohlen, senior associate dean of the G. Brint Ryan College of Business and a professor. Pohlen is also the director of the Jim McNatt Institute for Logistics and Research. McNatt, a UNT alumnus and a partner in car dealerships in North Texas, has given $6 million to his alma mater, and part of that gift founded the logistics research center named for him and provided seed money for the new drone test facility.

“This facility puts us at the forefront of work that is going to change transportation in this country,” Pohlen said. “The work being done here is the work that will make transportation safer, more sustainable and more affordable.”

The dean of the UNT College of Engineering matched McNatt’s money for the drone test facility, and Pohlen has been hard at work applying for grants to pay for the future research at the facility.

Thursday afternoon, business leaders, politicians and UNT faculty and staff mingled to look at the latest expansion of UNT’s engineering and technology education. They got to watch a drone demonstration and tour Discovery Park, where the College of Engineering is based.

UNT’s College of Engineering has been researching unmanned air vehicles for years now. Pohlen said the technology the university is developing and testing is transformative.

Unmanned air ambulances could make first responders that much faster — piloting a drone through the air instead of navigating a traditional ambulance on congested highways. Drones might one day fly above autonomous UPS delivery trucks, helping them avoid children playing on neighborhood streets or routing them away from congestion or road closures. Pohlen also sees a near future where drones bring prescription drugs and medical equipment from the pharmacy to your front door.

 UNT has opened a covered testing facility for drones.
UNT has opened a covered testing facility for drones.

Industries can use the drones too, to inspect bridges and infrastructure, or to dispatch onboard sensors to monitor weather systems. It might take longer, but Pohlen sees no reason that, one day, health care workers won’t board autonomous drones to visit homebound patients. UNT researchers will very likely be key players on teams that will eventually work with the Federal Aviation Administration to create air corridors so that unmanned air vehicles can deliver purchases.

Pohlen said he anticipates that drones will lower some supply-chain costs, because they don’t need fuel and their pilots don’t have to have expensive flight training and experience in a cockpit. With more freight traveling by drones in the future, he said, we could see emissions drop drastically, although building drones and their onboard computers isn’t without environmental impact.

“This is just the beginning,” Pohlen said.

The UNT test center isn’t the first of its kind, but such sites aren’t common yet, either.

“There are a handful,” Pohlen said. “We actually patterned ours after [a facility] up there in Buffalo, New York. I wanted to ask them because they’re in an environment where you get a wider range of temperatures, and they also get the very severe weather.”

The university’s conversations with officials at the New York facility allowed UNT to customize its facility. In the event of short periods of extreme weather, like ice storms, the test center could sustain damage.

Pohlen said UNT’s netted facility has panels that mount with clips, so if a winter storm brought very heavy icing, the panels could pop off rather than pulling down the poles that hold them up.

“So our structure really is quite flexible for different kinds of conditions,” he said.

Pohlen said UNT is partnering with government agencies and companies nationwide to test advanced air mobility technologies.

Researchers tested future airspace system automation, an electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. Faculty researchers have also tested a simulated air route between Discovery Park and Hillwood’s AllianceTexas Flight Test Center in north Fort Worth.

“We want people to use this facility,” Pohlen said. “We hope to see schools use it. In the future, I’d love to see this facility be a place where people can learn about the careers in this technology. You can become a certified remote pilot and fly these vehicles from a desk. The sky’s the limit.”

Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Lucinda Breeding-Gonzales | Denton Record-Chronicle