Drones Overhead – Cornell Students, Crop Specialists Test Non-Military Uses

by Bill Chaisson for Ithaca.com

At the end of last year the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced six sites around the country where they would allow testing of unpiloted aerial or unmanned aerial systems (UASs)—better known as “drones”—in order to integrate their use into commercial air space. It is presently illegal to use a drone for any commercial purpose because the government has no rules to regulate the activity. The FAA has promised that those rules will be ready as soon as spring 2015.

NUAIR (Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Alliance) is just one group that is working on “detect and avoid” strategies and technologies that will allow UASs to share airspace with piloted aircraft. Griffiss International Airport in Rome, formerly Griffiss Air Force Base, was one of the sites chosen. NUAIR not yet begun testing drones. A small team from two Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) offices in western New York has begun training flights with their UAS, but is waiting until spring to begin their research program, which is focused on developing agricultural applications for UASs.

But they have been building drones in Duffield Hall at Cornell and flying them over Cornell property for several years now. CUAir, a project of the engineering department, is an interdisciplinary effort that has engineering, business, and computer science students working together to design, build, and fly a drone for “search and rescue” work. Their focus is the Student Unmanned Air Systems (SUAS) Competition organized by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which is held every June at Patuxent Naval Base in Maryland.

Three years ago CUAir began building their aircraft from scratch. Before that they were buying model airplanes “off the shelf” and retrofitting them with electronic and imaging systems of their own design. Each year the team is judged on the basis of a journal paper (25 percent), a flight readiness review (25 percent) and the performance of the mission (50 percent). According to the CUAir team leader, senior engineering student Derek Faust, the Cornell team has placed first in the mission performance contest for the past three years.

“You fly around and find a target,” Faust said. “A ‘target’ can mean anything. Most of the uses are some form of search and rescue.” The targets in the competition are three-by-three-foot pieces of plywood painted with alphanumerics. Although the competition is taking place at a military base, the students were aware of many civilian uses, including fighting forest fires.

“You can accomplish the same thing as you can with a manned aircraft,” said Faust of the advantage of a drone, “but with fewer resources. If you lose it [the drone], it’s no big thing. At least it’s not as expensive as a plane, and there’s no pilot.” The technology, he said, is similar for both military and civilian uses.

The general rule, said the team leader, is that you look for technologies that suit your purposes, and if they don’t exist, you design and manufacture them yourself. CUAir has modified an existing autopilot system, but has built other hardware from scratch and written all of their own software. The main “payload” of the CUAir unpiloted aerial system is a camera. The gimbaled system that allows the camera to remain focused on its target in spite of the movement of the plane was designed by the Cornell students. The plastic parts were created using a three-dimension printer.

The criteria for the competition demand that the UAS accomplish its goals autonomously, that is, by following a prescribed program. CUAir is divided into five subteams. While “Airframe” subteam (led by Nicholas Kok) works on the craft itself, the gimbal and propulsion systems, the “Autopilot” subteam (led by Samuel Rosenstein) is designing and building the hardware that controls the plane in flight. The “Electrical” subteam (led by Kevin Wang) is concerned with systems that communicate between the craft and the ground. The “Software” subteam (led by John Steidley) writes the code that animates all of this hardware.

This year, for the first time, CUAir will be building two complete aircraft, one in the fall and one in the spring. The fall project will fly a trial run to enable all the subteams to see what does and does not work. They have two principal challenges in front of them: to get the UAV to take off and land autonomously and to develop a “sense and avoid” procedure. The latter is a new part of the AUVSI competition and is clearly serving to the purpose of meeting the FAA requirement that UAVs be able to share airspace with piloted aircraft.

Last year’s aircraft, Helios, is sitting on a workbench in the middle of a shop that is filled with other benches, tools, and bits of hardware. Entire model planes hang from the ceiling, sit on the floor, and are shoved onto shelves under workbenches. The Airframe team is in the process of building the pieces of the new craft. Stryofoam pieces are carved into molds, coated, and then molten fiberglass is poured, cooled, and peeled off. After that there is a lot of sanding, getting down to an ultra-fine grit.

Helios has an approximately nine-foot wingspan, its wings are long, straight, and narrow, like those of an albatross. The propeller is at the rear of the short fuselage and pushes the UAV.

Faust said it was put there for safety reasons; a team member would sustain serious injury if any part of their body intersected the spinning blades. The engine is only a few horsepower, but he said that the students have difficulty holding the craft in place on the ground when the propeller is spinning. In the air Helios can reach 30 knots and stay aloft for 25 minutes, powered by lithium polymer batteries. The UAS weighs 30 pounds, but Faust said his team hopes to get this year’s craft down to 15 pounds.

Cornell itself pays for half of CUAir’s expenses, but the other half is paid for through grants from corporations. These include some of the ones you would expect: Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, for example. But Faust was quick to point out that they get equipment and help from companies outside the military-industrial complex, like the one that supplies the cases they use to transport their UAV into the field.

It is the job of the Business subteam (led by Wesley Chow) to write the grant proposals that bring in this money from the rest of the world. “It’s our job to get sponsorships,” said Chow, “and we have also developed a relationship with the Boeing Mentor Group. They have been a lot of help.” The latter has helped the students with marketing. Chow and his subteam have made promotional videos, designed graphics for posters, put out a newsletter, and worked with computer sciences students to develop and maintain the CUAir website (cuair.engineering.cornell.edu).

It is also the Business subteam that sets up the relationships that become community outreach. “We work as college mentors for kids,” said Chow, “and we’ve made presentations at the Sciencenter and for the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.” (Chow’s team includes three of the five women on the CUAir team.)

Right now the students of CUAir are focused on getting their newest UAV ready for a test flight at the Cornell golf course in December, wondering—among other questions—whether they should add skis to the landing gear, although a catapult take-off strategy is also in the running.

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Bill Verbeten is a field-crop specialist in Lockport at the Cooperative Extension office for Niagara County. He has completed pilot training—the same training that anyone would get to fly a single-engine plane—and has begun training flights with the Canadian-built Precision Hawk UAV.

The future of drone use will include pilot training. “Right now people who are just using a hobby license are on shaky ground,” Verbeten said. “It’s like driving a semi [truck] or having a [crop duster] applicator license.” Verbeten is from Wisconsin and grew up on the family dairy farm; he knows about trucks and aerial application of chemicals. He has been with CCE since 2012.

“We are working in collaboration with the NUAIR Alliance, but we aren’t part of it,” Verbeten said of the CCE project. “We don’t operate out of Griffiss.” CCE has gotten authorization from the FAA to carry out flights in three locations in western New York, and they have seven applications pending for other sites that Verbeten and the other member of the team, Mike Stanyard of the Wayne County CCE office, will begin scouting in March 2015.

Their project, like that of CUAir, is about image gathering, but rather than search and rescue, CCE is interested in evaluating the growth and health of field crops. Verbeten said that the camera on his UAV collects visual information, but also thermal and multi-spectral data. The last divides up the electromagnetic spectrum into discrete packages, including the infrared frequencies.

“At the early stage of insect infestation or disease,” said Verbeten, “the crops literally heat up in response, and we can detect that heat with the UAS.”

By combining what is gathered on multiple flyovers of the same area, visual data can be used to create three-dimensional images. These provide a measurement of the height and size of the plants in the field. A series of measurements over time can yield a record of plant growth, which varies spatially in a single field and over a wider area. The visual data can also be analyzed simply to count the number of plants per given area.

Verbeten’s experimental approach is to gather this electronic data with the UAV and then collect the same information in the conventional manner on the ground in order to evaluate the accuracy and precision of the UAV-gathered data. Similar data sets have been gathered by piloted aircraft and even by satellites, but the UAVs are capable of obtaining much high-resolution images.

“We can fly lower,” the researcher said, “and we’re using miniaturized sensors.” When people ask “Why are we seeing the advent of drone use now?” part of the answer is the new availability of small, lightweight electronics with which to outfit the UAVs and make them both useful and affordable. “Right now,” he said, “we’re lining up the legal pieces to do this right.”

None of Verbeten’s data gathering has taken place yet. “Our authorization [from the FAA] begins next spring,” he said, “but I have to do three flights every 90 days in order to maintain my license.” The aviation world, he said, is helping researchers to learn the protocols of flight so this new group of fliers can be part of the traditional aviation community. The field-crop specialist predicted that the advent of UAV use would be greatly enlarging the pilot license-holding population. (Faust, the CUAir team leader, also said that drone design and building was a growth area within the engineering community.)

Like the CUAir UAS, Verbeten’s Precision Hawk makes autonomous flights. He programs the flight path before take off and then follows the progress from his laptop, which is attached to a ground station that monitors the position of the craft. “I pre-plan the missions,” he said, “ but I can change it on the fly, or I can take over in an emergency.” He said he doesn’t watch an actual first-person view from the craft on his screen, but rather a computer-generated image rendered by software. His flight training included learning how to troubleshoot in the event of various emergency situations.

Verbeten said that he has generally had a very positive response from the farming community. “New York has the reputation of being behind places like Illinois and Indiana in terms of innovation,” he said. “So the local farmers are happy to be out in front like this.”

The farmers whose crops he plans to look at are members of the advisory panel of his extension office. “It is working well because we were working together already,” Verbeten said. “They were selected to include a wide range of different crops over a wide geographical area.”

Like the CUAir craft, Verbeten’s UAV is powered by lithium polymer batteries, but his Precision Hawk can stay aloft for nearly an hour. “Eventually we will be adding a transponder so that air traffic controllers can detect it,” he said. “But the biggest problem is what are called ‘uncooperative air men,’ which are people in small planes that are flying without instruments.” These are the planes that Verbeten anticipates he will be most likely have to detect and avoid.

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Both CUAir and Verbeten’s crop research are out in front of the curve that is populated in the Northeast by the alliance of 40 public, private and academic organizations in New York and Massachusetts that are part of NUAIR. Flights have begun at some of the other five FAA-designated sites—University of Alaska working with Hawaii; Nevada; North Dakota; Texas A&M University; and Virginia Tech operating in Virginia and New Jersey—but the NUAIR is still looking for money. The FAA designation did not come with any federal funds.

There have been plenty of predictions in the media about how many jobs will be created by UAS-based commercial uses, but for hyperbole not much can match Sen. Charles Schumer’s prediction: “Central and northern New York will become the Silicon Valley of unmanned systems advancements.” •