- Associated Press - Saturday, August 26, 2017

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Virginia Tech’s new drone cage is taking shape on the north side of campus, promising students and researchers a place to go when they want to push the boundaries on new technologies outside of what is allowed in public airspace.

Imagine, for instance, a drone that flies completely autonomously. Mark Blanks, director of Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, said it could theoretically take off each day, accomplish some kind of task and then land itself on a charging dock to get ready for next flight without any human involvement.

The experiments required to build that type of machine would be dangerous, and likely disallowed under current Federal Aviation Administration rules. At the very least, it would require a monthslong approval process before anything could take flight.

But that’s exactly the kind of project Tech is hoping to accommodate inside the cage, Blanks said.

The facility is under construction now. It will sit near the Duck Pond and will measure 300 feet long, 120 feet wide and 80 feet tall.

It will be made of the same netting used at golf course driving ranges. The net will be held up by about 20 poles to form a large box.

Because it’s enclosed, the cage is considered an indoor facility where many of the FAA regulations that govern use of public airspace don’t apply.

At the same time, Blanks said the porous netting allows researchers to work on their designs in real world environments with wind and weather.

Tech has a history of working with the FAA to get approval for experimental flights, but that process usually takes about six months. With the drone cage, Tech will be able to bypass a lot of that red tape.

“(Students and researchers) might be doing rapid prototyping stuff or going out and flying something they built in the lab last night,” Blanks said. “You never know what they’re going to come up with. So they needed a place to go do that. We’ve literally called it a playground for those projects.”

There are a handful of other drone cages around the country, including one at Kansas State University, where Blanks worked before moving to Virginia. There’s one in Maryland, and the University of Michigan is planning one now.

Blanks said he believes Blacksburg’s will be the largest in the U.S.

The $1 million project will include a small adjacent building, with a classroom and lab where pilots can work on their aircraft before flights.

The drone cage will be open to all students and researchers. They’ll have to schedule flight time, but Blanks said the idea is to let anyone go there to test their crazy ideas, whether that’s autonomous machines, aircraft that interact while in flight or swarms of drones that work together like a bee hive.

“There’s inherent safety benefits, obviously,” Blanks said. “You can have aircraft inside the cage and people outside. Therefore, there’s really no risk to people. The rigor of needing to verify the system is going to do exactly what you think it’s going to do is not as great because you have this protection layer.”

Construction began this month and should wrap up in September.

For now, Virginia Tech is simply calling the new facility the outdoor netted drone facility.

“We’re working on a better name for it,” Blanks added.

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