KCRG-TV: University of Iowa Studying Pilotless Planes

By Mark Carlson

IOWA CITY — While there is a lot of talk about potential for driverless car research in Iowa City, similar research is already underway at the University of Iowa, just not on the roadway.

“We’ve been working on unmanned aircraft systems for quite a while,” said Dr. Tom “Mach” Schnell, who heads the University’s Operator Performance Laboratory.

Schnell and his team recently wrapped up a study aimed at learning how effectively pilots can control airplanes from the ground. The concept could result in pilots one day working from a ground control center, while cargo, or even commercial, planes fly around the world.

“We want to know how well people can operate planes from the ground,” said Schnell.

The Department of Defense is very interested in such technology, which someday could result in pilotless medevac helicopters flying into dangerous war zones to pick up patients. The same technology could also be used to drop off cargo in hostile environments.

Schnell said the program differs from drones, such as those already in use by the U.S. military, because he’s working on moving cockpits out of modern aircraft.

Schnell’s work is an example of how driverless research is practical, and already underway, in Iowa City.

Part of the Board of Regents $649 million request in state appropriations for the 2016 budget year includes funding for a UI institute focused on driverless vehicles.

Schnell has not been part of that discussion, but said he is a supporter of bringing the research to the area. Many others in the community, including the entire Johnson County Board of Supervisors, agree. This summer the supervisors approved a proclamation that would welcome companies interested in pursuing such technology to the area.

“It’s coming and people need to know it’s going to be safer,” said Mark Nolte, president of the Iowa City Area Development Group. Nolte has been a lead proponent in bringing an institute dedicated to driverless cars to Johnson County.

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