From Unmanned Systems Magazine: Cherokee Nation Businesses sees drone age full of opportunities

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Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), through its team of unmanned systems operating companies, provides government customers with actionable information through advanced data analytics.
 
In the iPhone age, the miniaturization of components and sensors have made every individual a globally connected data source, and unmanned aircraft systems have become an extension of that network by putting sophisticated payloads on ever-smaller platforms flying in otherwise unnavigable areas. With over 100,000 Part 107-certified pilots utilizing airspace to fly more than one million registered UAS, we are witnessing a growth in aviation that hasn’t been seen since the first golden age of aviation.
 
“We’re in the drone age … it’s another golden age of aviation due to lightweight sensors, enhanced communications, computing power, and, most importantly, the exponential increase of power density in batteries and hybrid systems that have led to unprecedented advancements in propulsion, aircraft endurance, and altitude records,” says J.C. Coffey, executive director of unmanned systems for Cherokee Nation Technologies.
 
“This technology convergence has launched a wave of affordable, very sophisticated platforms and sensors into the air. These are capabilities that only a select few, like the Department of Defense, could afford years ago. Now, we’re seeing unmanned system utilization expanding very, very quickly, tracking on Moore’s Law.”
 
CNB is the economic engine of the Cherokee Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the United States. The tribe and its businesses have more than 11,000 employees around the world. CNB owns companies in an array of industries spanning across manufacturing, health care, information technology, environmental services and gaming.
 
“For CNB’s unmanned systems-related work, the businesses are focusing less on individual platforms and more on a ‘family of systems’ approach with advanced data management. This emphasis on data management helps turn data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom,” Coffey says. “This broader approach utilizes available data more efficiently, going from satellite cueing and working down to finer resolution using different platforms across several verticals, which leads to improved event forecasting and decision-making.
 
“By integrating several sensors on the same platform, we’re transforming a single-mission platform into a multi-sensor, multi-mission platform. Today, we can couple an environmental sensor suite with optics, multispectral sensors, lidars, etc., and once the data is fused and properly processed, the new information becomes a very powerful end product,” he says.
 
“Missions that were previously reserved for large, manned aircraft are moving to unmanned ones such as the Global Hawk, and now we can even get multiple sensors integrated onto unmanned systems that are below the 55-pound threshold,” Coffey says.  “Once you get advanced sensor capabilities onto a smaller UAS, it becomes more affordable and environmentally friendly. You’re equipping aircraft the size of Pumas, Altavians, ScanEagles, Flexrotors, and Stalkers with greater sophistication, and that’s when you’ve knocked several zeros off the cost of the operation. You’ve significantly decreased the amount of fuel you’re going to burn, and that leads to the overall mission being more accessible to a wider audience.”
 
CNB offers customers the ability to increase human potential through unmanned system integration, achieving the AUVSI vision. While the nation does business with commercial partners, its primary customers are government agencies. Operating smaller, more affordable systems has allowed CNB to expand this portfolio and, not coincidentally, save the government money.
 
“Mark Bathrick, director of the Office of Aviation Services at the U.S. Department of the Interior, has repeatedly said in many use cases, DOI drones are taking one-seventh of the time to deploy at a tenth of the cost of manned aircraft,” Coffey acknowledges.
 
Another customer is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which has been using UAS in a wide variety of ways. “They have been inserting unmanned systems into their observation strategy very, very successfully,” Coffey says. CNB has conducted missions for USDA that include dam inspections in Utah, biomass analysis in Nebraska, and wetland inspections in Illinois.  
 
“It has been exciting to watch each government agency adopt and use these tools in different ways, including in support during natural disasters,” Coffey says. “One of our strengths is the ability to combine our commitment to safety with our systems engineering talent to support the fielding of unmanned systems technologies that are just coming out of development laboratories and make them ready for integration into operational environments.”  
 
Environmental intelligence
 
While very few UAS have been lost due to mid-air collisions, many have been lost due to the environment, hazardous weather, icing, and loss of situational awareness after flying into clouds. This equipment loss is due to a lack of understanding the environment, which may impact the UAS’ airworthiness. Bad weather can affect sensor performance, cut the range of communications, and cause aircraft to ice up and crash.
 
“One of our focus areas involves using the platforms for environmental intelligence to better understand, not just the atmospheric environment, but the larger environment in general,” Coffey says.  
 
Over the last year, a research team has conducted wind tunnel testing at NASA Glenn’s Icing Research Tunnel in Ohio, the world’s largest and oldest icing wind tunnel. Here, they tested vehicles including a Griffon Aerospace SeaHunter, NAVMAR Applied Science’s Arctic Shark, and QuestUAV’s DATAhawk, with an ice-warning system named the Atmospheric Sensing and Prediction System (ASAPS), developed by PEMDAS Technologies & Innovations.
 
“The PEMDAS system is very intuitive and pilot friendly,” Coffey says. “It actually gives you a warning as you’re approaching regions of icing conditions. The light in the cockpit is green when you’re in a nice clear, non-icing condition. As your aircraft approaches an environment with potential icing, that light turns yellow, and you know to make that 180-degree turn before you actually get the red light indicating that you’re in an area of icing.  This makes missions safer while enhancing operations.”
 
Coffey says in addition to icing warnings, the team has been experimenting with on-aircraft anti-icing coatings and systems, some of which can be put on hand-held systems. That work could pay off, not just for government customers, but for the commercial world as well. 
 
CNB and the IPP
 
Finally, Cherokee Nation Businesses is part of an FAA IPP team led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) with the goal of bringing the entire industry to the next level of operations.
 
“While the pacing items for integrating UAS into the National Airspace System have been technical, regulatory, and environmental, we may be approaching a time when availability of certified, current, and proficient operators is the main stress point. We are very proud to be partnering with the FAA as part of the UAF IPP Team and working with the AUVSI Trusted Operator Program (TOP) to ensure that there are enough properly qualified operators available to safely execute such a large number of missions. We will be working with the FAA Wings Program and TOP to provide a sustainable, traceable approach for UAS operators to get their 135 and 141 certifications,” Coffey says.  
 
For more information about Cherokee Nation Businesses’ team of UXS operating companies, visit UXSwisdom.com.

Above: A concept for drone operations in a multi-domain environment, for which CNB has expertise. Image: Cherokee Nation Businesses. Below: An Aerovel Flexrotor drone flies. The Flexrotor is one of the UAS that CNB uses to fufill customer needs. Photo: Aerovel
 

An Aerovel Flexrotor drone flies on a mission for Cherokee Nation Businesses. Photo: CNB