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 3 of 5)
Blair was so impressed with CropCam, in fact, that he first became a vendor for the company, then created his own company to market UAVs—still in the prototype stage—of his own design, through PineCreek Precision. Technology such as CropCam or his own PineCreek designs, he says, “is what’s going to save the small farmer in the United States.”
UAVs such as CropCam are light, easy to use, and not very expensive. But bigger, more capable UAVs—also based on military designs—are gaining use, at least where a potential mishap doesn’t put people or property at risk.
Last summer, for instance, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) flew a pair of UAVs over the Greenland ice sheet. Tucson, Arizona-based Advanced Ceramics Research developed the craft, called Manta, for military use. But the pusher-type, propeller-driven craft have a payload capacity (up to 15 pounds) and range (eight to 10 hours of flight time at around 92 mph) attractive to a wide variety of users.
Flying over meltwater-fed lakes atop the ice sheet, the Mantas measured the sunlight penetrating the lakes, allowing researchers to determine their depth and their potential for draining through the ice sheet and out to sea. (Understanding the behavior of the Greenland ice sheet has become critical in recent years, with some scientists predicting that global warming could dump vast amounts of water, now in the form of ice caps, into the oceans.) Because flying over remote areas like the Greenland ice sheet is risky, the task is better suited to unmanned craft.
Perhaps even more ambitious is a NOAA project employing UAVs as hurricane hunters. In 2007, a craft developed by Aerosonde flew into the eye of Hurricane Noel as the fast-growing storm approached the East Coast. The NOAA craft loitered inside the hurricane for nearly eight hours, flying below a height of 325 feet as it measured winds and air temperature. That’s far lower than manned hurricane-watching aircraft such as NOAA’s four-engine P-3 Orion would dare go.
“It’s really useful to take an unmanned aircraft to those lower elevations, as the risk of catastrophe [with a manned aircraft] is just too high,” says Marty Ralph, a research scientist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. Costs also are much lower with UAVs, he says, so more projects can be pursued.
Because of the sheer versatility of UAVs, their missions are for the most part limited only by imagination. A case in point: In April 2008, NOAA experimented with a UAV built by Airborne Technologies, based in a town that by November 2008 everybody had heard of: Wasilla, Alaska. The aircraft, called the Resolution, was used in the north Pacific to hunt for ghost nets—drift nets that have escaped from fishing vessels and then float with the current, devastating marine life. (By some estimates, ghost nets in the north Pacific alone cause thousands of birds and marine mammals, such as porpoises and seals, to drown each year.)
The Resolution is equipped with video sensors that can detect anomalies in the water; GPS sensors automatically mark the location of nets it finds, for recovery by boats. While the Resolution takes off and lands with the help of a shipboard pilot, it flies its route autonomously.