Unmanned Traffic Jam
To the Federal Aviation Administration, civilian UAVs are the new barbarians at the gate.
- By Douglas Gantenbein
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
Department of Defense
(Page 2 of 5)
It’s easy to see why Schmale and hundreds of scientists, farmers, police, researchers, firefighters, and others believe that capable, easy-to-fly unmanned aerial vehicles can do their bidding. As is the case with dozens of other innovations, these birds were first launched by the military. The skies over Iraq and Afghanistan are fly-specked with UAVs, spotting targets, firing missiles, and scouting for roadside bombs. The key hardware—sensors that give UAVs useful vision and controls that put them where people want them—was developed for military operations. Perhaps as a result, the UAV industry in the United States today is robust, with makers of aircraft, control units, sensors, and more scattered across the country.
Sometimes companies pop up in unlikely places. One nexus of UAV development is Hood River, Oregon. This small town, on the Columbia River, 60 miles east of Portland, is best known for the apples that grow on hillside orchards above it, and for the brisk winds that roar along the Columbia below it, making the sport of windsurfing enormously popular here.
In 1994, the UAV firm InSitu Inc. set up shop across the Columbia in the little town of Bingen, Washington. Several years later, in 1999, InSitu alumni Bill Vaglienti and Ross Hoag decided Hood River looked like a good bet and moved there to launch their own company—Cloud Cap Technology. The firm has emerged as one of the leading suppliers of the brains of today’s UAVs—the autopilots and payloads that fly the craft and see what needs to be seen.
Inside the two-story Cloud Cap building, computer geeks mingle with mechanics. Around the building are scattered half-assembled miniature aircraft and helicopters; workbenches are stacked with electronics gear, computers, and partially constructed control units.
“We make the enabling technology,” says Mark Zanmiller, the hardware engineer who leads Cloud Cap’s technical sales and marketing group. As sensor technology evolves, inertial and air pressure sensors get both better and smaller; Cloud Cap’s designers are now turning out UAV controllers dainty enough to fit in a coat pocket but packed with amazing capabilities.
One of Cloud Cap’s competitors is CropCam, a division of a company called MicroPilot, a manufacturer of military UAV control systems. CropCam is essentially a lightweight (six pounds) powered glider, equipped with electronic control systems and a Pentax Optio digital camera. It has a ground-based remote control station, but instead of requiring a pilot-operator, the station is used to input GPS-based waypoints, desired elevation, and other flight parameters. (Manual remote controls can be used as a backup.)
After CropCam takes off, it uses the information sent from the remote control station to fly its route and snap photos. Software stitches the photos together for a seamless look at agricultural lands, so farmers can check seed coverage, gauge irrigation effectiveness, and spot early signs of insect infestation. Its high resolution—images taken at 2,100 feet have a resolution of 15 centimeters—“blows satellites away,” says project director Lisa Shaw.
Idaho farmer and UAV convert Robert Blair previously used to monitor his fields with a small, piloted airplane. But getting photographs of his crops that way was expensive—$6,000 for a survey of 1,500 acres—and the airplane had to be booked weeks in advance. So in 2006 he bought a CropCam for about $18,000 and began taking his own aerial photos.
Flying the little UAV isn’t hard, Blair says. When needed, he loads the craft into his pickup—its wingspan is only eight feet—and heads to his fields. Using grid coordinates, he programs the flight path and sets the desired altitude (usually 900 feet). After a quick flight check—rudder and aileron function, battery connection, a look around to ensure the airspace is clear—he starts the engine and simply tosses the craft into the air. “I have it flying in about 15 minutes,” Blair says.
And the results, he says, are amazing. Using digital photos and a computer program to analyze them, Blair can examine his crops for insect damage, lack of water, and more. “We can verify what’s going on out there in the field,” he says.