On a warm afternoon last summer in the hills west of Corvallis, three Oregon State University students went hiking in the McDonald-Dunn Forest when they became “lost.” A few scattered belongings — a backpack, shoes, a shirt — marked their trail in an emergency response exercise. Rather than send out a full-scale operation on foot in the steep terrain, a rescue team launched an unmanned aerial vehicle, the suitcase-sized Vapor made by Pulse Aerospace of Lakewood, Colorado. With all the whoosh and whir of an electric lawnmower, it hovered over the hills, took thermal-infrared and visible-light photos and sent back a video stream to a laptop in an SUV parked in a clearing.
The results showed that aerial devices can effectively assist in an emergency. While concerns over privacy have driven much of the recent public debate in Oregon and elsewhere, such machines are proving their worth in fighting forest fires, managing farm fields and monitoring the environment. Most people call them drones. Insiders call them unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In any case, they are likely to transform our use of the skies in the near future.
Oregon has been recognized for more than a decade as a hotbed of UAS development, says Belinda Batten, Oregon State engineering professor and a former program officer for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. That reputation began with Insitu, a company in the Columbia River Gorge. “Insitu is one of the global leaders in these autonomous vehicles,” says Batten. “Because of them being where they are, there’s an entire supply chain in the Hood River area: component pieces, the avionics, cameras, autopilots. The motors are being made at Northwest UAV in McMinnville.” Additional UAS companies are located in Central Oregon, including Kawak Aviation Technologies and PARADIGM.
Commercial UAS flights are currently illegal, but the Federal Aviation Administration allows research testing with a permit, known as a Certificate of Authority. PARADIGM, a Bend startup, has arranged for FAA approvals and facilitated projects for OSU, including the search-and-rescue operation in the McDonald-Dunn Forest and a summer-long analysis of potato fields in Hermiston.
Now, as the federal government plans to open the nation’s airspace to planes without a live pilot onboard — whether operated by software or a person in a distant control station — Oregon State is partnering with businesses, economic development organizations and state government to create an Unmanned Vehicle System Research Consortium. OSU scientists, engineers and students are testing UAS over potato fields, vineyards, forests, beaches and ocean waters. Inspired by bat wings and butterflies, they are designing new aircraft with lightweight carbon composites, sensors and flexible membranes.
Researchers hope to grow an industry that developed largely for military applications and already employs more than 400 people in Oregon. It has an annual statewide economic impact estimated at $81 million, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, AUVSI.
Michael Wing, the appropriately named OSU coordinator of the research consortium, is developing cooperative UAS research projects with two Oregon companies: Portland-based HoneyComb Corp., which designs systems for agriculture and natural resource management; and VDOS LLC of Corvallis, which focuses on the environmental, military and humanitarian applications of UAS.
“For HoneyComb, partnering with OSU means that we have the support of research programs operating under authority of the FAA,” says Ryan Jenson, CEO and co-founder. VDOS conducts manned and unmanned aerial flights in Alaska and other parts of the Pacific Rim, says Seth Johnson, the company’s UAS manager who anticipates collaborating on technology and educational opportunities such as student internships.
Northwest UAV has already embarked on research with OSU aimed at increasing the fuel efficiency of its UAS motors, and at least one new business has emerged from the university through the Oregon State Advantage Accelerator program. Michael Williams, a junior in the College of Business, has created Multicopter Northwest to market his aerial platform to professional photographers and filmmakers.
While the technology grows in capabilities and cost, Oregon State’s Aerial Information Systems Lab aims to demonstrate that powerful robotic planes can be affordable. “Unmanned aerial systems are now becoming available at prices well below $2,000,” says Wing, the lab’s director, an expert in remote sensing and an assistant professor in the College of Forestry. “Coupled with light-weight sensors, UAS are capable of capturing high-resolution imagery that can support natural resource management, disaster response and search-and-rescue operations.
“What’s new and exciting is the flexibility of flights and the ability to get close to the ground with our higher-end sensors. If we have an object that is an inch-and-a-half across (about the size of a golf ball), we could tell its location. That’s a pretty fine level of detail.”
In the lab, Wing and a team of grad students assemble planes with off-the-shelf components: a Zephyr II delta-wing (a plane composed entirely of a wing-shaped structure) made of rigid foam, painted Beaver orange and measuring nearly five feet from wingtip to wingtip; a Canon point-and-shoot camera; an autopilot the size of a credit card; an 11.1-volt lithium-polymer battery. He has flown these machines over the Oregon State campus and even demonstrated one to a UAS conference in Turkey, hosted by an Oregon State alumnus, Abdullah Akay (‘98 master’s and ‘03 Ph.D. in Forest Engineering).
Last summer, concerns over privacy led the Legislature to establish new standards for UAS in Oregon. At the same time, it approved a $900,000 shot-in-the-arm to the Oregon Innovation Council for a new Unmanned Aerial Systems Enterprise center in Bend. Rick Spinrad, OSU vice president for research, chairs the board for the new center.
“This is going to be a billion dollar industry,” says Mitch Swecker, director of the Oregon Aviation Department. “One of the governor’s priorities is jobs and innovation, and as a state agency, one of our priorities is to help promote economic development.” To advance that goal, the state and OSU have joined with Alaska and Hawaii in a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create a national UAS test site. In a related but separate effort, Oregon State has joined a national coalition of 12 universities to coordinate a multidisciplinary research program. OSU’s focus, says Wing, would be environmental monitoring.
If these initiatives succeed, UAS will routinely help manage farm fields, survey wildlife, provide up-to-the-minute progress reports on wildfires and enter disaster zones where humans would be at risk (think of the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant). They may also carry much of the nation’s airborne cargo.
Eyes on Potatoes
OSU researchers are already helping to lay the groundwork for this vision by testing commercial UAS across the state’s diverse terrain.
From satellites, balloons, high-altitude surveillance planes and even a two-seater Cessna, Oregon State scientists have been gathering data on the planet for nearly a half century.
In Eastern Oregon, at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (HAREC) and over nearby private farmland, agronomists are collecting data from two systems: the Unicorn, a delta-wing shaped plane from Procerus Technologies in Utah; and the Hawkeye made by California-based Tetracam, which uses a type of parachute known as a paraglider. These machines fly different kinds of aerial patterns and are equipped with infrared and visible-light cameras, enabling researchers to determine which arrangements collect field data most effectively.
Disease, moisture and growth problems can vary from plant to plant and across the field, says Phil Hamm, HAREC director. “The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly, so the grower doesn’t have any reduced yield or quality issues,” he said in an OSU news release last spring.
Farmers across the country have used aerial photos for crop management for many years, but UAS could provide more detail at lower cost. “If I’m farming, I’m not interested in the healthy plants,” adds Hamm. “I need to use that imagery to see where the problems are.”
Higher resolution is the key, says Don Horneck, OSU Extension agronomist. “You can fly the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) low enough that you can get 1 millimeter resolution, and you can actually look at an individual leaf in the field,” he told the online magazine PrecisionAg.
Pests in the Vineyard
In late summer, as the days get cooler, wine grapes get sweeter, and the harvest in Oregon’s vineyards launches into high gear. But humans are not the only ones watching the crop with an eagle eye. In some years, birds (robins, starlings, crows) cause extensive damage as they feast on the ripening fruit.
Vineyard managers take a variety of countermeasures. They install nets, fire shotgun blasts and flash laser lights. Despite their efforts, about 65 percent of the state’s vineyards lost up to 11 percent of their crops in 2010 and 2011.
What if UAS could deter the birds, save grapes, reduce labor costs and lower the neighbors’ stress? In 2011, two OSU alumni, Dick Evans (‘69 Engineering) and Gretchen Evans (‘69 Elementary Education) sponsored an engineering project to answer that question. They own a vineyard in the hills west of Junction City. With guidance from John Parmigiani, OSU mechanical engineer, two student teams came up with different approaches. One designed an aircraft to deploy reflective streamers and laser lights. The other developed a plane inspired by the birds’ natural fear of predators. It mimics the look and behavior of a Cooper’s hawk, a skillful flier whose dark cap and long, thin, rounded tail distinguish it from other hawks.
In the fall of 2012, the students tested their planes in the Evans’ vineyard. Members of each team stood watch at the corners to record pest birds flying into and out of the vineyard. As they launched their airplanes, the students captured the scene on video to document how well their UAS worked.
As often happens in research, the results were inconclusive. “To make a long story short,” says Parmigiani, “it wasn’t a bad year for birds. We got some action but not nearly as much as the year before. Based on our data, you couldn’t conclude that firing off shotguns worked either. It appears that at a certain time in the morning, the birds just stopped being active.”
Not to be deterred, Parmigiani and the Evanses decided to give the students’ designs another chance. They are planning a broader study with more vineyards, contrasting the UAS and other approaches to reducing the loss of grapes.
Bat Wings and Butterflies
Light-as-a-feather, fiber-reinforced carbon composites give Roberto Albertani an edge in designing unusual aircraft: micro air vehicles that you can hold in the palm of your hand. Such fliers could respond to disasters inside buildings or collect data under tree canopies. To design them, the OSU mechanical engineer studies how they interact with the air. And for that, he relies on a common cooking ingredient: olive oil.
In a room the size of a walk-in closet, he sprays a fine oil mist into the air. At the same time, air blows out of a device that looks like a hair dryer and moves over and under a test aircraft anchored to a platform. The air may be invisible, but lasers illuminate the airborne olive oil particles, telling the researcher where the air speeds up or eddies as it moves across the wings. High-speed cameras capture the action at 500 frames per second.
“Ultimately we design something that we can build,” Albertani says, “something that can be manufactured in large numbers.”
Albertani, an expert in composite materials, co-holds two patents for micro air vehicles. He demonstrates one of them by taking a sleek, black airplane off the top of a filing cabinet and wrapping the wings under the fuselage into a package you could put in your coat pocket. Take it out, and the wings snap back into position, ready to fly.
Equipped with a video camera, such a plane could fly over nearby terrain and relay images back to the sender. “If you’re fighting a fire in the forest, you could throw this into the air and get a look at everything around you,” he says.
To understand how micro air vehicles should be designed, Albertani looks to nature — in this case, bat wings. He picks up another plane about the size of a coffee cup. In the middle of its slick carbon-fiber wing surface sits a thin latex skin like a patch over a hole. As air moves over the wing, he explains, the latex can flex to add lift and maneuverability. The idea came from Peter Ifju, a windsurfer and Albertani’s Ph.D. adviser at the University of Florida.
In a separate project, Oregon State students worked with Belinda Batten to understand how bats control flight through cells on their wings. With funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, they used engineering principles to show that some cells sense air-pressure changes. Moreover, the cells are linked to muscles that course through the wing. The result of this natural design — a system that engineers call “co-located actuators and sensors” — is familiar to anyone who has marveled at bats as they dart after insects at dusk. Without the familiar control structures we see on airplanes, bats’ flexible membrane wings demonstrate dramatic agility.
Albertani is also studying the flight behavior of butterflies. “Butterflies are incredibly interesting fliers,” he says. “They have low wing loading, which means they are very light and have a high wing surface. It makes the flier intrinsically slow. Nevertheless, they can dash fast and are very agile. They can maneuver in small spaces.”
Albertani continues to develop his designs and to test them in OSU’s wind tunnel. He also advises the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which competes in an annual DBF (design, build, fly) competition.
Barely a century after the Wright Brothers learned how to control flight, the technology that has given us access to the heavens is now becoming smaller, less expensive and combined with sensors and software that enable it to do more than transport people and cargo. UAS can lower risks to fire fighters, reduce the cost of collecting data on wildlife and natural resources and help find lost hikers in the woods.
OSU researchers are already using them to gather environmental data. Geophysicist Rob Holman has flown UAS for beach monitoring and measurement, and Christoph Thomas, a professor of atmospheric sciences, plans to use an “Oktocopter” (a UAV powered by eight rotor blades) in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica.
However, before UAS become more common in our skies, social and technical problems remain to be solved. “If there is one lesson that can be gleaned from this nation’s aeronautic history,” says Wing, “It is that these difficult challenges can only be answered by facilitating increased research and innovation in the burgeoning UAS industry.”
See Drones’ New Mission: Save the Forests, 4-18-16, by John R. Platt.