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

Utah-based L-3 Communications develops sensor systems for UASs that collect all types of data for analysis. These sensor systems have been used for an array of purposes, like supporting FEMA during natural disasters. Because many of these systems incorporate powerful sensors and imaging technology capable of seeing much more than the human eye, they can save precious time, and lives, during emergencies.

“We have been involved in the earliest days of UASs in providing communications capabilities for them and in the ground station, providing end-to-end connectivity,” says Bruce Carmichael, L-3 Communications vice president of communication systems. “These systems need cutting-edge, high-capacity infrastructure that supports the aircraft and transmits data in near-real time to people on the ground.”

Ultimately, potential uses for UASs are extremely varied, as current systems can be used to fly anywhere from 10 meters to 60,000 feet off the ground and weigh anywhere from three pounds to more than two tons.

Unmanned Environmental Management

The application of unmanned systems is about much more than business. UASs are also helping environmental groups manage a variety of projects that would otherwise be impossible to accomplish. Because these organizations usually have limited budgets, manpower and resources, UASs are an affordable tool that can improve the management of projects and better help the environment.

Each aircraft in USU’s fleet, which is nicknamed “Aggie Air,” costs as little as $10,000 to build and just pennies to operate, making it considerably more affordable than a commercial, piloted aircraft. At the price point USU is building UASs, companies of any size, not to mention hobbyists, could purchase a system.

USU has already used its UASs for several environmental management projects.

“We’ve been able to track the spread of an invasive reed species called phragmites australis across large samples of wetlands in Utah,” says McKee. “This plant is damaging North American wetlands but it’s extremely hard to control and literally wipes out valuable habitat for migratory waterfowl and replaces it with stuff that provides very little food value and negative habitat value.”

Because the invasive species grows in wetlands, it is very difficult to identify and hard to control. Prior to incorporating Aggie Air into the fight against phragmites australis, teams would journey into marshes and spend days tracking the spread of the reed. Using UASs, an entire wetland can be mapped in a day or two and invasive species identified with incredible accuracy.

“We’ve developed algorithms using machine learning that can train itself to recognize what’s on the ground with a set of pixels, such that we can identify phragmites with 95 percent accuracy,” says McKee. “This is 20 percent better than the industry standard.”

This method is so much quicker and exact that imagery can be overlaid from month to month to gauge the spread of these invasive species and study different ways to fight them.

Using infrared imaging, McKee and the team at USU are also using unmanned Aggie Air systems to lead in the mapping of some areas of the Arctic Circle to measure permafrost melt and runoff. The team has also helped with wildlife management projects, counting nesting pairs of pelicans using UASs.

Winning with UASs

During hurricane Katrina, thousands of people around New Orleans were stranded without any way of evacuating their flooded homes. Rescue teams were deployed and thousands of volunteers pitched in to help, however disaster areas—especially those that are flooded—can be difficult to manage, as access is extremely difficult.

L-3 Communications and its partners had the idea to use the powerful devices on their UASs to locate victims in need of help. The instruments could be used to map out the disaster area, identify individuals in need of assistance and relay support as fast as possible. Because these UASs incorporate infrared sensors and other technologies, they could pinpoint victims with extreme precision. However, due to strict FAA regulations, the UASs were not allowed to operate, even though they could have helped save lives.

“The FAA has to worry about safety. They have not allowed the commercial application and commercial flights for unmanned systems, even though they know there are applications where they could be used,” says Marshall Wright, aerospace and defense cluster director for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “We have been pushing the FAA to at least do something to allow for the evaluation and testing of these systems such that they, the FAA, can understand that they can be operated very safely in the national airspace.”

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