Skip to Search Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content
Sombrilla Mast


The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Daniel Pack

Drone On!

UTSA researchers are leading the way in technology behind unmanned aerial vehicles, including uses that could save lives wants them to deliver books and other goods. Google is testing them to deliver emergency supplies to disaster areas. News organizations plan to use them to gather information. Movie studios envision them taking filmmaking to new heights -- literally.

They are drones, the popular name for unmanned aerial vehicles. Already flying military missions, drones are waiting to be cleared for takeoff for commercial use. The Federal Aviation Administration is devising rules for private UAVs in U.S. airspace, and once drones begin operating commercially, the industry could contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy and create thousands of jobs over the next decade.

With so much potential, universities, government agencies and companies are busy researching new ways to use UAVs and better ways to operate them. Daniel Pack, the Mary L. Clark Endowed Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and his team at UTSA stand on the forefront of such research into how these machines will fly in the future -- even by using human thought to control them.

“There are many, many applications [for our work],” Pack says. Commercial applications often emerge from military technology -- the Internet being a prime example. So studying the interaction with the brain and machines could not only help soldiers by freeing them from carrying more equipment on the battlefield but also perhaps one day help people unable to walk control their wheelchairs with thoughts, for example.

Drone On

If that sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie, consider that Pack, who is also manager of the UTSA Unmanned Systems Laboratory, has been working on the cutting edge of drone research. At his previous employer, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Pack was a founding director of its Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research and director of its Sensor-Based Intelligent Robotics Library. But the opportunity to chair a department and, he says, “being able to play a significant role in the growth of the university” lured him to UTSA.

Since the laboratory’s founding in 2012, Pack and his students have focused on three main areas of drone research: man-machine interfaces, cooperative UAVs and systems of systems (or how smaller components can work together in larger systems). Their work drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense, which in August awarded the team a $300,000 contract to study how humans can interact with UAVs. Pack says the ultimate goal is to figure out how to use a soldier’s brain signals to navigate small drones for military missions, such as gathering intelligence, performing surveillance and conducting reconnaissance.

Student researchers in the laboratory see their work potentially saving lives and making a difference in society. Undergraduate Jonathan Lwowski has developed a navigation simulator for multiple quadrotor helicopters and a system to detect and avoid obstacles for mobile unmanned ground vehicles. He says such vehicles could take the place of manned helicopters in forest fires, or they could patrol the border rather than having Border Patrol agents risk their lives. Another team member, Rajdeep Dutta, who is pursuing his doctorate, has researched cooperative control, in which “multiple UAVs in a group can be assigned with different sub-jobs in order to accomplish a mission.”

The FAA currently allows unmanned aircraft to fly in national airspace under very controlled conditions. UAVs perform border and port surveillance for the Department of Homeland Security, assist with scientific research and environmental monitoring for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, support public safety, help universities conduct research and perform other missions for government agencies. UTSA is part of a consortium of 16 research institutions called the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence & Innovation, which won FAA approval to serve as test sites for unmanned aircraft.

Once the FAA allows drones to fly commercially, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates the UAV industry’s economic impact will be $82 billion by 2025, with more than 100,000 jobs created nationwide. Texas ranks third in the nation for unmanned systems development, behind California and Washington. The industry association projects direct employment related to unmanned systems to grow from 958 in 2015 to 4,247 in 2025 and total economic impact soaring from $181 million in 2015 to more than $800 million in 2025.

Pack says UAVs are well-suited to the “three Ds”: work that is dirty, dangerous or dull to people, such as monitoring pipelines in the oil industry, performing search-and-rescue operations or offering disaster relief. Could we eventually have our own personal drones? “Who knows!” he says. “Maybe UAVs some day can check on your kid next door or your baby and be able to send an image to you directly wherever you may be.”

–Kathryn Jones


Please keep all comments constructive and relevant to the articles you're commenting on. Sombrilla reserves the right to delete or edit messages.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Current Issue: Fall/Winter 2014 | Table of Contents