From RC Hobbyist to UTM Researcher

Building the infrastructure for the drones of tomorrow.

By John Coggin, Chief Engineer at the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership

John Coggin has run each of the major UAS traffic management (UTM) tests MAAP has led since 2015, a series that culminated last fall with Phase 2 of the FAA’s UAS Traffic Management Pilot Program (UPP2). But he started his career in aviation as an RC hobbyist building airplanes on his coffee table. Here, he’s flying one of his homemade gliders from a sand dune at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in North Carolina.

remember the first time I put a camera on one of my remote-control airplanes. It was a little point-and-shoot camera with a servo that I could command from the controller. Just getting to see my house from up above, I experienced the wonder of being at that altitude. It was the allure of flight — it opened up a whole new world.

I built a lot of gliders as a kid. But when I started my career in aerospace, I didn’t have a fundamental education in aircraft design. So I decided, hey, now’s a good time to just learn it on my own. This was prior to the drone industry — everything was still RC aircraft and aerospace research. I think my first big design challenge was to create a plane that was small enough to fly in my backyard but had a better than a one-to-one thrust to weight ratio. At that time it was just becoming feasible with all-electric aircraft, but it was very, very challenging.

Being able to design an aircraft that you could pull into a vertical climb and just see it shoot up like a rocket was exhilarating. Then I went down the path of “how small can we make this?” For instance, could I make an aircraft small enough to fly inside my house? I designed and built six-, seven-gram fully functional electric airplanes, but it turned out the most challenging aspect was teaching my dog not to chase them around the house.

Coggin’s favorite design-build-fly effort was this 12-oz all-electric plane that managed a nearly 2:1 thrust:weight ratio. He used minimum-weight structural design principles to build a lightweight backyard-scale aircraft that was powerful, maneuverable, and could fly fast as well as slowly. Built in 2004, it still flies.

At the time, nobody was looking at these things for commercial purposes yet. But even then, I was increasingly seeing the capabilities of RC aircraft and started putting together a holistic picture of who all the stakeholders here were — the regulatory folks, the technology folks, and the people developing the use cases.

When I started to look at it from a societal perspective, instead of just a “hey I want to do this with my model airplane” perspective, I recognized that there’s a lot that has to come together, including software services and the architecture to support deconfliction of drone flights. Even then, it was very obvious that was going to be critical.

The UPP test site
The UPP test site
UPP2 was the fifth major UTM effort Coggin has led, and the most complex one that MAAP — or any group — had undertaken. For weeks, Coggin’s team showed up at the Kentland Farm research site every morning before dawn, wearing headlamps to cut through the fog and plastic bags to protect their shoes from dew-soaked grass to set up that day’s tests. MAAP collaborated with four USS partners coordinating the flights of 12 aircraft. During the busiest period, the team packed 370 flights into eight days. The intensity of the effort, Coggin says, reflected the significance of the work.

At the moment, drones’ potential capabilities are largely untapped because we don’t yet have routine flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. Unmanned aircraft systems traffic management, or UTM, isn’t just traffic management for drones; it’s the umbrella under which all the other flight safety factors get plugged in. For instance, there’s a weather service built in to our UTM testing that allows drone pilots to know whether or not they should launch or delay. The drones have to be able to visualize the airspace, who’s flying there, and how to stay out of their way. It’s the infrastructure and the architecture that manages autonomous aircraft interactions on a large scale.

We are at the forefront of the FAA research initiatives to develop these technologies. But this research is not done in a vacuum. There are so many stakeholders at the table — it’s not like we’re off in our lab by ourselves doing some work and then we write a report. We had weekly calls that included NASA, the FAA, and industry leaders. We got letters of support from local groups from the Radford Arsenal to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s to the Virginia Tech police. They all recognized how important this is.

The chief of the Virginia Tech Police Department, left, and other representatives from law enforcement and public safety visited the test site during UPP2 for a demo of UTM and related software services. Coggin, right, said that testing software tools that can help these stakeholders serve their communities was one of the most rewarding aspects of the project.

I’d like to see if we could conduct our next big demo event from the comfort of all of our offices. Not because I’m enjoying working from home so much, but because it would be a demonstration of the true end-state functionality. I have this vision of 12 drones-in-a-box permanently stationed out at Kentland Farm. With remote BVLOS truly enabled, we could conduct all of the UTM testing without a single person on site. The drones would be flying around doing the missions and we’re testing the software architectures from our offices. That’s where I want to be — to really be able to automate these systems and reduce the human input required for them to fly safely.

When Coggin joined Virginia Tech’s aerospace and ocean engineering department as a researcher, he designed and built an electric-powered UAS that he flew at Kentland Farm. Nearly a decade later, his work at MAAP has shaped the evolution of a foundational technology for drone integration in the U.S. And it was all the product of his curiosity about what these aircraft can do and how they fit into the economy and the airspace.

As we move ahead in this industry, I’d emphasize to engineers everywhere not to hesitate to take your interests and look at them as a potential professional career direction. Don’t hesitate to go pick up the latest copy of the source code somewhere and start working with it, or the latest set of electronics. Don’t think that hobbies can’t have relevance to your interest in aviation as a career. A lot of the people who are leaders in the drone industry today started with a hobby, just a pure passion for aviation.

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