January 14, 2014

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Eyes in the Sky

Utah Companies are Helping the UAV Industry Take Flight

By Dan Sorensen / Photos courtesy of USU AggieAir

January 14, 2014

When people hear the phrase “unmanned aerial vehicles,” they often think of military drones flying over warzones, ready to drop a missile at a moment’s notice. While up until now unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have mostly been used for military purposes, their usefulness extends far beyond weapons of war.

In fact, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) estimates the industry could contribute more than $80 billion to the U.S. economy over a decade, creating 103,776 jobs in the process. A similar study has shown that Utah is poised to claim a large portion of those jobs with a variety of unique products offered by local businesses. Utah companies working in the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry attribute approximately $200 to $300 million of annual revenue to their solutions. 

Currently, it is illegal to fly a UAV in the United States without a certificate of authorization to operate in national airspace, which is difficult to get and nearly impossible obtain on short notice. The creation and growth of the commercial UAS industry in the United States ultimately hinges on the Federal Aviation Administration developing six sites across the country for testing. These test sites will assist the FAA in better understanding the intricacies of UASs.

The end result will mean those interested in the commercial and recreational use of UASs will have a much easier time obtaining certificates of authorization for piloting their aircraft. The FAA plans to establish guidelines for commercial UASs by the end of 2015.

Commercial Uses for Unmanned Aircraft

If you have spent any time on YouTube, you’ve surely come across at least one or two impressive videos that seem to be shot from a helicopter—however, your instincts tell you otherwise. Many amateur and professional videographers are already using UASs to capture dramatic aerial footage without the use of a helicopter. These systems can cost from $500 to $5,000, making them a much more affordable alternative to a standard helicopter. Even wedding videographers are beginning to implement this technology.

In addition to situations where cost savings is key, unmanned systems are also used in situations that are dull, dirty or dangerous.

Dull situations refer to long, boring missions like surveying landscapes for hours on hours, day after day. These types of surveys can often be executed by aircraft automatically, without being remotely piloted. The data can then be relayed to sensors on the ground or collected once the aircraft returns
to headquarters.

Dirty situations include flying into areas like Fukushima, Japan, to run air sample tests that monitor radioactivity. Researchers are also using UASs to fly into volcanoes to gather data in ways that were previously impossible.

Dangerous jobs are one of the primary uses for military drones; in the civilian world, however, UASs may fly into forest fires, fly in close proximity to the ground or fly in less-than-favorable conditions. Using UASs for these duties can ultimately save many human lives.

Utah’s Booming UAS Industry

Several Utah companies and schools are already developing UASs that can be used for commercial purposes. Utah State University has an entire program dedicated to building unmanned systems for precision agriculture—farming management based on observing, measuring and responding to infrared data gathered from crops using complex imaging technology. For example, by collecting data with a thermal camera, farmers can detect crops suffering heat stress and respond before plants die off.

The team at USU was tasked with developing a system to better manage irrigation of areas in the Sevier River Basin. Farmers were in search of precise data to better monitor crops and ensure proper irrigation. USU’s solution needed to be both affordable and precise.

“We decided, ‘how hard could this be? Let’s just build our own unmanned aerial vehicles,’” says Mac McKee, Utah State University Utah water research laboratory director. “They had to be small, inexpensive, and able to launch and land anywhere—free from runways—because the uses we had in mind often don’t occur near a runway.”

The solution McKee and his team came up with was a small unmanned system that weighs less than 10 pounds, flies based on a preconfigured GPS flight plan, and is able to carry instrumentation capable of delivering scientific-grade data. The USU system helps farmers better utilize natural resources and maximize crop efficiency.

In the future, many unmanned systems will be utilized to mine data from the world around us and facilitate a better understanding of our environment. This has the potential to provide companies with an edge over the competition, assist organizations in better utilizing natural resources, and allow humans to take better care of the earth.

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