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Aviating from Terra Firma! Here’s How One Pilot is Flying on the Ground.

August 19, 2021

In honor of National Aviation Day, we are taking a look at the many innovative ways SNC is shaping the aviation industry. SNC subsidiary, Kutta Technologies, Inc. (Kutta) is an expert in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone technology. We asked Program Manager, licensed Private Pilot and UAV Pilot, Mark J. what it’s like to develop and fly drone tech.

“With so many UAS aircraft making their way into civil airspace, we’re going to need innovative ways to control multiple UAS at once, team them with their manned counterparts, cognitively and safely have them think for themselves to mitigate human workload, and safely return them to the ground or even the manned aircraft.”

Please share a little about your background and how you came to Kutta.

I joined the Kutta team back in the summer of 2010. I had been fresh out of school for about six months with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from Arizona State University. Kutta found me and my resume through the school’s Career Services. Thankfully I had participated in previous school networking and interviewing fairs. Kutta was searching for a new grad to hire as a Systems Engineer to support test development and execution for its EO/IR sensor payload controller on a military customer’s Bi-Directional Remote Video Terminal (BDRVT).

Did you always want to work in this field? Tell us a little bit about your career journey – what got you interested in the work you do?

As a kid, I was always intrigued with planes – how they were built, how they operated, and of course, how to fly them. I wanted to be a pilot. I flew model RC planes. As a teenager, I enjoyed physics and science, and I worked a lot on the family cars to keep them running. I developed an engineer’s mindset. I learned how to diagnose problems, take things apart, repair things and put them all back together. It felt good to make things work again.

Later in college, aside from working towards my Aerospace Engineering degree, I also worked on obtaining my Private Pilot’s license. I took a ground school class at the university and flying lessons from the local airport. I obtained my license in March of 2007, and my BSE in Aerospace in December 2009. While attending ASU for my degree, I was responsible for structural and material analysis on an international UAV senior design project. That, and RC planes from when I was younger, is how I started getting into UAVs. I had always assumed I’d work in some capacity with manned aircraft, but when I was hired by Kutta, that continued my path on UAVs.

Tell us a little about what you do? In your position, what does a day in the life look like?

Early on at Kutta, I was responsible for developing system design requirements, supporting design documentation, gathering test data and evaluations from integrations and flight tests to analyze the results and develop final reports. Later I worked on various multi-unmanned/manned teaming projects for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) as a Lead Project Engineer to reduce aviator workload by automating mission tasking during mission execution with UAS teams. Now, I’m a Project Manager on projects such as Kutta’s Mission Planner. We are developing and integrating pre-mission creation programs to create, simulate, validate and load mission tasking and maneuvers on UAS drones. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to utilize my Remote UAS operator's license to pilot drones for Kutta for testing and demonstrating our handheld UAS controller. This has included coordinating airspace requests and approvals within national airspaces, mitigating safety risks, video production of the flights for marketing, and of course, the fun part – piloting the drone.

What is it like to pilot remote UAS or “drones”?

I really love to fly manned aircraft from the cockpit. Nothing to me compares to being up in the sky. Free to go wherever you want. Free from the ground. To be above everything and to experience flight from the controls at my command. But if I can’t be up in the air, the next best thing is to fly aircraft from the ground. All of what I fly are commercialized drones integrated with our developed handheld UAS controllers. It’s a lot like flying RC planes, but much easier. Advances in technology and the introduction of quadcopters have really made these platforms stable. No longer do you need to constantly be on the controls adjusting for breezes and such. And with much of the mission planning we develop, these drones can fly themselves, with me providing minimal control. **Here Mark is using the Kutta Tactically Aware Controller (K-TAC).

I’m sure there is a lot of preparation/training that goes into that sort of license, can you tell us about that? For example, is each system a little different?

The best thing for Remote UAS licensing is to know how to read aeronautical charts. You need to be able to recognize controlled airspaces you intend to operate in, how to obtain any required air traffic authorization through Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) services, and how to spot potential hazards and restrictions in the area you wish to fly. Lastly, knowing regulations and operating requirements are crucial. 

A big part of what Kutta does is the manned/unmanned teaming or making the manned and unmanned vehicles work together. Do you have any role in that with your work?

Over the years, Kutta has developed many manned/unmanned teaming products that enable management and tasking of multiple UAS at one time. They provide intuitive point-and-click interfaces for quickly pausing, re-tasking, viewing and waypoint navigation for simultaneous control. I have been fortunate to help architect these systems and manage some of the integration/flight tests for many of these products, from Ground Control Stations (GCS) to lightweight kneeboard control devices worn by pilots during flight that would navigate and control a typical UAS payload. This provides aviators in war zones the ability to scan ingress or egress paths for potential threats and get real-time updates of the landing zone moments before arriving. Kutta has been progressively integrating more and more UAS ground control technology up into the manned cockpit. This also gives the manned aviator multiple UAS “wingmen” that can be tasked out. It minimizes the aviator’s burden and enables them to remain at a safe distance for things like engagement or battle damage assessment.

UAVs and UAS are rapidly becoming a critical piece of the aviation industry. What do you think is the next step in that evolution?

Kutta has been helping the U.S. military develop Ground-Based Sense-and-Avoid (GBSAA) technology to help UAS flying in civil airspace sense, avoid and remain “well clear” of other aircraft. This technology has been successfully proven in some real-world incidents that helped avoid a collision between manned and unmanned aircraft. I think the next step is to finalize moving this ground-based radar technology up into the air on aircraft so that coverage isn’t limited to select areas on the ground with the service. Also, pairing this technology with Kutta’s Safe Airspace Management Algorithm (SAMA) and our Auto-Routing algorithms, would give a complete solution to ensure UAS not only avoid other aircraft, but do so with split-second decision making that maneuvers them efficiently and safely within their airspace – avoiding terrain, no-fly zones and areas of lost Radio Frequency Line-of-Sight.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

My favorite part is being at the leading edge of UAS technology development that aids our military and DOD. It’s a lot of fun to see many ideas for UAS technology that may have been novel early on with many engineering obstacles to overcome, actually move to discovering solutions –  architecting, developing and integrating them into operational use.

At SNC we talk a lot about supporting and protecting explorers and heroes but Kutta falls into that category as well with all the military support you provide. Why is that important to you?

I want to provide our heroes and explorers with the best technology we can that works when it needs to, works well and makes their job easier and safer.

What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in the aviation field?

There are so many opportunities that one can utilize their aviation skills and degree in. Don’t limit yourself by thinking that such skills are only for manned aircraft. With so many UAS aircraft making their way into civil airspace, we’re going to need innovative ways to control multiple UAS at once, team them with their manned counterparts, cognitively and safely have them think for themselves to mitigate human workload, and safely return them to the ground or even the manned aircraft. This is going to take many great ideas and skills from many to implement in the aviation field.

Interested in joining the Sierra Nevada Corporation team? Apply today at sncorp.com/careers.