High-Flying Research

Uncrewed aerial vehicle research in Buffalo gets a major boost with UB’s new open-air drone enclosure—among the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Zoom image: Split image of a drone flying on the left and a photo of multiple blue poles that form the large outdoor drone facility on the right. Split image of a drone flying on the left and a photo of multiple blue poles that form the large outdoor drone facility on the right.

The royal blue poles stand upright, like birthday candles on a cake—if birthday candles were 86 feet tall.

Visible from Maple Road and the I-990, the poles support a massive enclosed netted complex in the parking lot of Crofts Hall at the University at Buffalo. Here, faculty, students and industry partners will conduct experiments on uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones.

The 24,000-square-foot research facility is thought to be the third-largest outdoor, enclosed drone-testing facility in the nation. Dubbed SOAR (Structure for Outdoor Autonomy Research), it will help solidify UB’s position at the forefront of research and education in a technology that could improve everything from commerce and agriculture to emergency response, while providing local companies with a valuable resource to test UAV hardware.

Pioneering the next generation of autonomous vehicles

The drone enclosure enhances UB’s already significant autonomous vehicle research portfolio, which includes a fleet of cars, an electric bus and a UB-affiliated startup for AI-guided watercraft. In addition to self-driving technology, researchers both within and outside the university will use the SOAR facility to study:

  • Sensors and surveillance for applications in agriculture, military, homeland security, law enforcement, wildfire monitoring, bridge and building inspections, and more.
  • Small parcel delivery and logistics.
  • Drone fleets, including the coordination of UAVs as part of disaster response.

The facility will also be a resource for UB students to study robotics and computer vision or even to compete in high-speed drone races.

Ready for takeoff

Because SOAR is enclosed, and thus considered an indoor facility by the Federal Aviation Administration, researchers are not subject to FAA rules when testing UAVs.  But the netting still provides realistic flight conditions through all sorts of weather: wind, rain and, yes, snow.

“Our plan is to leave the netting up year-round,” says Chase Murray, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering. “This will enable us to conduct tests and improve the performance of UAVs in the often-harsh winter weather conditions that we encounter.”

Murray, who studies UAV routing and logistics, among other things, secured a $393,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research’s Defense University Research Instrumentation Program to support the facility’s construction.