U gets GPS tech grant

Emily Banks

The Global Positioning System, provided by the government, has become a utility similar to water and electricity. And researchers, including those at the University, have been studying ways to harness its potential.

The aerospace engineering and mechanics department recently received a $50,000 grant from Lockheed Martin to research small, unmanned vehicles that use the Joint Precision Approach and Landing System, a GPS technology.

Lockheed Martin is one of the world’s top defense contractors, which does about 80 percent of its business with the U.S. Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

The military is spearheading efforts to update the current air traffic navigation system by replacing it with GPS technology such as JPALS.

Aerospace engineering and mechanics associate professor Demoz Gebre-Egziabher has spent 10 years researching GPS-related navigation systems, and despite the relatively small size of the grant, he said it still helps.

“It’s a good sign we have the local industry working with us Ö It’s just another grant to keep us continuing to do this work,” he said.

The development of GPS as a landing system could increase the safety of medium-sized to insect-sized unmanned aircraft conducting routine inspections of power lines, rescue efforts in disaster areas, or even surveillance in war zones.

Among the technical issues to be resolved, GPS must be made more “robust,” Gebre-Egziabher said.

If the navigation system technology in place today fails at a runway, a plane can be redirected to another runway or airport. But GPS relies on a network of equipment and satellites, so that when one link in the system fails, everything fails.

“You don’t want anything to go wrong with these. You want them to be ultra, ultra safe,” Gebre-Egziabher said.

Kris Jensen, senior staff systems engineer at Lockheed Martin, said the corporation benefits from working with the University.

“This isn’t just like we give (Gebre-Egziabher) a check and he goes away,” Jensen said. “We’re interested in building an ongoing relationship with the University of Minnesota and, if possible, help him in the work that he’s doing.”

Aerospace engineering and mechanics department head Gary Balas said researchers across the country competed for this grant.

“The fact that Lockheed Martin wants to partner with us and is putting money behind it shows that we’re a valued partner in their eyes,” Balas said.

David Jensen, a University graduate, works for Honeywell Aerospace as senior technical manager of precision landing systems.

“We’re mainly focused on the commercial equivalent of JPALS – what the airliners or your general aviation pilots would use,” he said.

David Jensen and researchers at Honeywell hope to improve GPS to the point where pilots could know exactly where they are when trying to land an aircraft in bad weather.

He also said using GPS for commercial flights could improve air traffic by increasing capacity and reducing the space between aircrafts, because GPS allows for greater precision.