New Bern, NC – Commonly called drones, UAV technology will be used by law enforcement, the National Guard, the coast guard, and higher education, among others. NextGen Air Transportation Center is an organization mandated by the FAA, and in partnership with North Carolina State University, to help in the modernization of the National Airspace system. Director, Kyle Snyder, says Hyde County's population of just five thousand is a big appeal, as well as the area's terrain.
"That air space provides some unique benefits as far as the location, the proximity to restricted airspace, with the agriculture field being the ideal application for these."
Snyder says Governor Beverly Perdue is in full support of the drone facility. Engelhard airport, where the test site would be located, is also one of the least traveled airports in the state.
North Carolina State University is a leading partner in the effort to build a test site in Hyde County. Extension Crop Science Specialist and Professor of Crop Studies at N.C. State, Ronnie Heiniger, says the department is looking forward to using drones, and applying them to the farming industry.
"utilizing surveillance of crops is actually one of the best ways to manage plants because you can compare different responses that are going in the field for instance from a surveillance photograph you can compare where you have good growth with poor growth and then make decisions based on that comparison where as if you just use in field sensors on a local scale it's very difficult to pick out relative areas like you can with aerial images."
Heiniger says replacing fixed wing aircraft with drones would help with time management, and covering mass areas efficiently. Heiniger says the use of an aerial image is more helpful than one at ground level.
"If we could put up a drone or a smaller craft and have better longevity why then we could capture more detail and we have shown scientifically that the use of an image is so much better than one at ground level. You have so many more things you can look at and compare."
For example, farmers could look at thermal images of bacteria on an individual leaf, or watch the growth cycle of a plant on a day to day basis, monitoring the effects of climate on the plant. Heiniger says he, and his colleague's job in the project will be to measure the results of experimentation.
"The testing facility will probably primarily test new models of drones that can stay aloft longer, perhaps more helicopter or hovering type vehicles than say the predator type thing that the US air force is using. So testing different types of drones, but while they're doing that, we're hoping to tag into the application. Which kind of drone works best for the application we're looking for and then quantifying the value of that application. How much nitrogen can be saved, how much improvement can we do in crop, land, and forest management, those are the things that can dictate the economics of the market place."
If the Hyde County facility is built, the job of testing new drone models will be in the hands of scientists at colleges such as N.C. State University, and Elizabeth City State University, people that have studied the dynamics and structure of all types of aircraft. N.C. State has one of the oldest UAV programs in the country. In the beginning, they were used as a way to teach students about the movement of regular aircraft. Now, 20 years later, Professor and Associate Head of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at N.C. State, Larry Silverberg, says that North Carolina might become a leading producer of UAV's.
"Industry in North Carolina is gearing up on being providers of UAV's for the various folks that benefit from it in the state of North Carolina, the agricultural community, the coast guard, our special forces and so it's that link. Hyde County provides a testing ground for a lot of new concepts and all the new things involved in transitioning from the concepts to the vehicles that they will be able to supply."
The engineering department at N.C. State University is engaged in aspects such as the electrical systems on aircraft, autonomous algorithms, new display technologies, and sensors. They are also interested in every other facet of study. For instance, in the basic sciences, there will be research of psychological effects, man-machine interface, air traffic management, the FAA's regulatory issues, policy developments, and safety issues. Silverberg says it's this diversity, as well as a certain amount of convenience when researching drone technology that makes it appealing.
"So from my point of view, from a research point of view autonomy brings in a lot of different technologies so it's fun in that respect and also the technologies aren't that complicated and you might find it hard to believe that it's not complicated but what I mean by that is that its built from off the shelf components."
The newest issue of Wired magazine, a publication dedicated to current and future technology news, features an article about UAV innovations in the backyards of hobbyists. And when you visit the global forum at d-i-y-drones.com, created to cater to the amateur drone designer, you see how hi-tech the gadgets are becoming. One blog comes from a person who's redesigned his Iphone to control his personal drone. Silverberg says the designs you might see from a hobbyist are being carried out by students at N.C. State, only they have a deadline.
"In our undergraduate program we have a UAV senior design section where students build an unmanned aerial vehicle in response to a community need. This coming year we're building a UAV in response to requirements set by the coast guard."
If you remember being in your backyard as a kid with a new model airplane, made from plastic, and usually breaking by the end of the summer, Professor Heinigen agrees that these kinds of memories could cause an artistic draw to UAV research.
"Students are very much like that they get they're adrenaline pumping and their creative juices flowing when they think about how they might design a drone or an small aircraft or even an insect size vehicle could be used to sense or monitor different properties."
Unfortunately not every UAV enthusiast can fly their prototype at Engelhard airport in Hyde County because of restrictions on drone use by the Federal Aviation Administration. Director of Next Gen Air, Kyle Snyder, says there are certain guidelines an individual or business needs in order to compete in the market.
"The rule says right now for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems to interact or fly in civilian airspace it must be for public use so that is either state agencies, law enforcement agencies, or universities doing research. So we're going to submit to those rules that say that we have to submit a proposal or request for a certificate of authorization that provides to us the authority to fly under FAA guidance. Small UAS's, really fifty pounds or under are what we are targeting right now."
Snyder says the restrictions mandate a four hundred foot limit to their altitude. NextGen is working as a knowledge hub, for business and institutions interested in the use of the testing facility, if it is built.
"What are the regulatory issues, what are the technology opportunities, what are the applications so we can be that knowledge center for exactly that if you have an entrepreneur telling me that he has the next sensor, or he has an idea, come to us and we can either tell you go work on this or here's some other partners we have either here at the incubator at N.C. State, or some other potential partners here in the state industry wide or academic."
NextGen also wants to be the link between technology developers and institutions, that can work together to apply the research. Snyder says NextGen is working with sensor companies, helicopter companies, The National Guard to support emergency response, law enforcement, and The Department of Transportation, among others.
"The Department of Transportation is interested in can we fly some of the I-40 corridor over through the mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee to look at maybe being able to predict potential for rockslides and mudslides in that area because we know we've had some problems over the last couple years too."
Although the possibilities seem nearly limitless for the application of this new industry, there are some concerns. It may be common perceptions of drones as machines that carry out bombing raids, it may be the thought of them being used for surveillance, or it could be the fact that market research companies have projected the growth of this industry to be significant. This year UAV's are a six billion dollar industry, and with any new technology come fears.
Many people fear that autonomous refers to a machine that thinks on its own, but autonomous refers to the precise set of algorithms that dictate the movements of a UAV.
The American Civil Liberties Union has created controversy with reference to privacy concerns. They've requested that a strict set of policies be developed, as to the rights of drones in such institutions as law enforcement.
Dr. Silverberg notes that privacy issues are being overshadowed by already existing modes of surveillance that pose bigger threats. He recounts a story of his childhood that reminds us of our encounter with new ideas.
"I'll tell you a funny story, I remember when I was a kid, and I'm not the youngest guy but I remember when the electric garage came in and in the newspaper everyone was worried that people would get stuck and young children and babies would get stuck under the garage doors and it would basically be killing babies and so there was a lot of concern when the electric garage door came in because of the safety to people."
Technologies can be put to good or bad use, but the fact remains, this technology is brand new and has not been approved for public use on a mass scale. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of unmanned and robotics technology, has developed guidelines to relieve people's minds about the use of drones as they become more present in the market.
Snyder of NextGen likes to refer to the next three years as an opportunity, to prove that drone technology is worth the attention.
"To have a place where we can develop the technology, develop the applications so we can demonstrate the public value to using these systems."
In universities across the country research is already integrating the use of UAV technology. Silverberg says his department is researching new types of configurations for flight dynamics, new types of algorithms so multiple UAV's can be operated with one component, and new displays to alter user interface with the machines.
At one point, Dr. Heinigen referred to research that is attempting to use small machines to monitor the chemistry of the human body, a point he used to speculate on the possibility of designing drones to be the size of bugs.
"One of the things we tried or are working on is using hormones, which are sense, from insects to determine where they are in the field and so having a small vehicle with that air-sensing technology that could fly around in and out of cover would be real interesting."
Mr. Snyder of NextGen would like to reimagine common perceptions of aircraft design.
"What is just being done now in the InGen community is how can we design unmanned aircraft that breaks away from what we traditionally think of as aircraft. Can we design aircraft that can take higher g loads, how do we do the longer duration missions."
And speaks of companies that are already mass producing UAV's.
"Aeroviornment in CA has produced thousands of small UAS for the military, AAi in Maryland is producing a large number, Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, has built thousands of Scan Eagles originally built for the tuna industry to help fisherman track schools of tuna out to sea, actually a launch and recoverable on a fishing boat."
A forum is set for Raleigh next Thursday that will discuss the plans and hopes for
the drone testing facility if it is built.
The small drone community, in the fifty pounds or less range, is projected to experience the biggest growth in the near future. The reauthorization by the FAA announced this year that in December the six states allowed to build testing facilities will be chosen. This is a major step in the integration of UAV's into the National Airspace System. In the year 2015 interested parties are hoping for full integration of UAV technology.