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UMass Launches Major Aviation Research and Training Center at Westover Air Force Reserve Base

John Collura

John Collura

Bolstered by a $5-million grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in December of 2014, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is launching a major Aviation Research and Training Center at the Westover Air Force Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass. The center is a partnership between UMass Amherst and M2C Aerospace, Inc., a woman-owned business based in Milford, Mass. The aviation center is scheduled to open at the Westover location during the spring semester of 2017.

Currently the center is located on the Amherst campus under the umbrella of the UMass Transportation Center in the College of Engineering, according to the College’s Associate Dean for Research and Innovation John Collura.

M2C Aerospace President and CEO Ann Dancik and her staff of aviation professionals and technologists have been closely working with Dr. Collura to establish the UMass aviation center over the past two years and have made continuing progress in positioning the center for new research and training opportunities with government and industry. This effort includes planning for the establishment of UMass-affiliated test beds to promote aviation research in controlled airspace with restricted commercial and general aviation air traffic.  

Ms. Dancik says that “Working with the Commonwealth’s flagship university in establishing the aviation center has been exciting and is off to an excellent start. It seems the expertise in aeronautical-related disciplines resident at UMass Amherst may have been a best kept secret. That’s not the case anymore. Government and industry organizations looking to leverage advanced aviation-related research and technologies are quickly developing an appreciation for the talent and creativity embodied by the faculty, students, and facilities at UMass Amherst.”

The $5-million funding is being used to renovate a vacant building at the Air Force Reserve Base to accommodate the Research and Training Center and off-campus researchers, staff, and students.

“We received a grant of $5 million under the last administration, and the good news is that Governor [Charlie] Baker put it his capital plan,” says Collura. “We got the first $100,000 to do an engineering study, which came up with some preliminary estimates of costs to renovate the space in a building at Westover.”

The UMass Design and Construction Management unit recently submitted a plan for the remaining $4.9 million to Mass Development, the agency in state government charged with promoting economic development.

“The next allotment would be for the preparation of construction documents so that bids can be submitted for the renovation of that building,” says Collura. “Then a construction contract will be awarded, most likely in the spring of 2016, and the plan is that the construction would be completed at the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017.”

One of the major objectives of the aviation center is to promote and conduct cutting-edge aviation research to address anticipated technology needs in the ever-expanding aviation industry. “Faculty in the College of Engineering, the School of Agriculture, and the Isenberg School of Management are currently preparing proposals for external funding in the area of aviation research,” explains Collura.

Right now, for instance, Professors Collura, Doug Looze of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), and Daiheng Ni of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) are working together with ECE and CEE students on a project to develop an electronic “geofence” around Bradley International Airport to keep unmanned aircraft out of that airspace. The technology would issue a warning to the drone operator and, if this warning went unheeded, actions would be taken to safely remove the drone from the restricted airport airspace.  

As Collura says, “We’re working on this with the support of U.S. Department of Transportation research funds and currently have five students and three faculty engaged in preliminary concept development as part of a senior design capstone project.”

The aviation center at Westover will feature a 360-degree, hi-fidelity, 3D simulator for airspace design, the modeling of a variety of air traffic scenarios, and the training of individuals interested in becoming aviation professionals, such as air-traffic controllers. Existing air-traffic controllers interested in staying abreast with changes in air-traffic control technologies and procedures associated with the FAA’s NextGen modernization program will be able to receive simulator-based training at Westover. Collura said that UMass would be one of the few institutions anywhere to have such a facility to simulate aircraft in flight, and it can also reproduce weather conditions and their impact on aircraft and air-traffic controllers. Remote access to the simulator will also be provided from the UMass Amherst campus.  

“We’re currently planning to renovate approximately 27,000 square feet at Westover, about 7,000 of which will accommodate the 360-degree simulator,” explains Collura. “Being based at a military installation, we plan to offer current military air-traffic controllers, ending their active service, an opportunity to become certified as civilian air-traffic controllers through an onsite training program.”

This simulator will also serve as a research platform for faculty who want to do research and address critical questions such as how to integrate unmanned aircraft safely into the national airspace with manned aircraft.

“We can do simulations and help avoid major catastrophes with the research knowledge we gain from simulations,” says Collura.

Another of these crucial questions is how to transition securely from radar technology in our control-tower operations to GPS technology, which has the potential of being more accurate and reliable.

“We in conjunction with M2C have been in discussions with NASA to collaborate with the aviation center by providing access to NASA systems being developed and also eventually establishing a NASA presence in the aviation center at Westover,” explains Collura. “The NASA Ames Research Center located at Moffett Field, CA, has expressed an interest in the possibility of a presence on the East Coast. Additional discussions are in progress with the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center, New London, CT, to collaborate on aviation research to improve search and rescue, disaster response, and counterterrorism activities supported by air operations.”

Collura added that “The UMass aviation center is currently a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Northeast unmanned aircraft test site along with MIT, University of Syracuse, University of Rochester, and a few others. Our testing would take place at the Joint Base Cape Cod, Buzzards Bay, MA.”