RALEIGH — The state that was once home to the world’s first aviators is now launching efforts to use pilotless planes in agriculture and other industries.
Unmanned aerial vehicles – commonly known as drones or UAVs – are widely used in the military. But as their civil applications become clear, N.C. State University and its transportation research centers are working to make the state a leader in UAV technology before 2015, the year UAVs may officially assume their place in the nation’s airspace.
Civil UAVs are far smaller and much less destructive than military drones.
With wingspans of just a few feet, they’re often launched by hand and outfitted with remote sensing equipment designed to collect detailed data from the air. UAVs are able to produce nuanced images of large land areas, rendering them particularly useful for commercial agriculture and geographic surveys.
“You can look at crop health, which comes down to irrigation, nutrients and pesticides,” said Larry Silverberg, associate head of aerospace and mechanical engineering at N.C. State. “When you plant major crops in North Carolina, you’re always monitoring and making adjustments. With UAVs, you could get higher yield at lower costs.”
UAV technology could have large implications in a state that supported more than 50,000 farms in 2011, but North Carolina farmers can’t yet use it to survey their crops. Until the FAA develops regulations for integrating UAVs into the national airspace, the vehicles may be used only for research or governmental purposes authorized by the administration.
But between 2015 and 2017, when commercial integration is expected to take place, UAVs are expected to contribute $153 million dollars to North Carolina’s overall economy and $23.5 million to its agricultural sector, according to a recent study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
In preparation for integration, N.C. State is working to expand its UAV research and testing efforts. The university’s engineering program has been using UAVs to teach students about aerospace systems design and radio control since the early 1980s, and within the past several years, its focus has evolved to include autonomous flight technology.
Some undergraduates within the engineering program build their own UAVs during a semester-long “boot camp” headed by Silverberg. Others take classes focused on remote sensing or UAV configuration.
Graduate students at N.C. State have made strides in UAV research. In 2010, Daniel Edwards, a doctoral candidate, proved the viability of autonomous soaring, or a UAV’s ability to fly without human intervention.
The NextGen Air Transportation Center, a research and education center at N.C. State’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education, established a UAV testing site at Engelhard Airport in Hyde County this year. It recently received authorization to begin test flights over a cattle farm in Butner. The FAA is considering the Hyde County facility as one of six testing sites to support UAV integration.
“Studies show the big thing UAVs can support is improving yield predictions,” said Kyle Snyder, director of the NGAT Center. “The agricultural community has been incredibly receptive of this technology.”
Snyder has met with farmers across the state to educate them about the potential benefits of agricultural UAVs. He is also working to unify universities, community colleges, government agencies and businesses across the state in their pursuit of UAV development.
“(UAV technology) is not just for mechanical and aerospace engineers,” Snyder said. “It involves crop science, and it’s being embraced by big data and analytics. By being able to draw from multiple departments, we can support statewide air regulation.”
Learn to fly in a day
Commercial UAV companies are taking root in the state, as well. Last month, Bob Young, co-founder of Red Hat, invested in PrecisionHawk, a Raleigh-based company that primarily develops UAVs for agricultural purposes. Its three-pound UAVs typically gather data from about 330 feet above the ground.
PrecisionHawk’s platform supports a variety of remote sensors capable of gathering visual, thermal, spectral and depth-related data. Depending on which features are purchased, the technology costs between $10,000 and $25,000.
“We’ve found it’s going to make farmers money by increasing yield and profit margins,” said Pat Lohman, PrecisionHawk’s COO. “In the long run, many farmers are willing to make capital purchases. If they’re already engaged in precision agriculture, they can make their return investment back very quickly.”
The UAVs can be operated by the farmers using the company’s flight-planning software.
“You can learn how to fly it well in a day,” Lohmann said. “Then you can get up there and fly it whenever you need to.”
The FAA authorized the use of two commercial drones this summer, a move UAV proponents hailed as a step forward for the industry.
Despite the economic promise of UAV technology, not all stakeholders are on board with its large-scale deployment. At a public session held by the FAA last spring, many callers expressed concerns regarding privacy issues associated with flying planes fitted with surveillance equipment in the national airspace.
Ultimately, individual states will shoulder the responsibility of assessing safety and privacy issues associated with UAVs, Silverberg said. The NGAT is working with the legislature to draft regulations regarding privacy and data collection by UAVs. It will present its plan in March.
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