Tuesday, May 29, 2012

From Battlefield to Farm Field

"From Battlefield to Farm Field" was the theme of the 2012 Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Action Summit held in Grand Forks, North Dakota, May 22 & 23.  Sponsored by the Red River Valley Research Corridor, this was the 6th such conference that focuses on the development and use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). 

Out of the 350 or so people there, I was probably the only one that needed to learn that we don't call these flying things drones, they are UAVs. I don't believe the term "UAV" is necessarily reflecting the military's love of acronyms but is rather distinguishing the less sophisticated unmanned aircraft that would fly a preset route, collect imagery, then land. Today's unmanned aircraft are extremely sophisticated craft that have a crew of "2 to 800" reflecting the pilot on the ground who can be 1000s of miles away, the sensor operator, data analysts processing the information being collected by the UAV, communication specialists who connect the UAV to ground-based and airborne assets, maintenance crews, and other support teams.  So the "S" in UAS describes a SYSTEM or SYSTEMS of multiple components working together, just like the "S" in GIS.

This was my first time being exposed to so much UAS information. It was at times a daunting task to fully understand what was being said.  There were more acronyms on some of the slides than real words. But I did manage to come away from the Summit with a number of concepts:
  • This is a rapidly growing industry. There are more people involved with UAS than with any other facet in the Air Force.
  • The biggest challenge at the moment is the integration of UAVs into the National Airspace System (NAS), so that those UAVs can be used for training, emergency response, and homeland security. In response to this issue, the Federal Aviation Adminstration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (scroll to the bottom and click on Subtitle B of Title III) includes language to create six test sites around the country.  These test sites will be used to test reliability of UAVs, develop certification standards, test sense and avoid capabilities, develop pilot qualification standards, and a number of other key issues.
  • Our state may become the host of one of the possible test sites.  Grand Forks is well-positioned due to the relatively uncrowded air space, proximity to the Grand Forks Air Force Base, the University of North Dakota, and Northland Community & Technical College in Minnesota.
  • Northland Community & Technical College is the first school in the country to offer a UAS maintenance program.
  • I've previously heard of terms like "firehose of pixels" and "tsunami of data."  At this Summit I heard a new term, "Niagra Falls of information."  In the military, 1.3 pedabytes of data is being collected every day which gets turned into 1400 intelligence reports every day.  And even so, the existing UAS resources are not meeting the demand for those types of services.
  • UAS aircraft account for 1/3 of all military aircraft.  There has been a 4300% increase in hours flown by UAVs since 2001.
  • Ready for another acronym? We were told that we are seeing the dawn of real time ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconaissance).  For example, Gorgon Stare is a wide area sensor that can watch an entire city by using a few frames of imagery and just enough resolution to see vehicles. It was described as being like a moving Google Earth.
  • There are many different sizes and types of UAVs and multiple models of UAVs.  For example, there are 39 versions of the Global Hawk around the world.
  • Attention gamers! I sat in on a session in which gaming technology is being utilized in training pilots and in testing UAVs. An example was given in which the test environment is based on CalamityVille.
  • So what are some of the uses of UAVs?  Here are some I saw and heard: Oil/gas pipeline monitoring, traffic accidents/monitoring, real estate, law enforcement, wind turbine monitoring, public safety, monitoring crimes in progress, responding to alarm calls, missing person searches, crime scene photos, crowd and traffic control, pre-raid recon and intel, marijuana searches, delivery of small items such as cell phone and medications, disaster assessments, hazmat and radiological sampling, and fire monitoring.
  • What are some of the agriculture/ranching applications of UAVs? Here are a few: estimation of citrus yield, mapping of pest and weed infestations, monitoring livestock, monitoring pasture conditions (we heard about a rancher in Wyoming using Landsat to determine when the snow was gone from his summer pasture in the mountains), monitoring crop growth, determining soil moisture, mapping herbicide overspray, and integration into existing precision agriculture systems.
  • One of the last presenters we heard from is the CEO of Field of View, LLC who said that small UAVs should be good for up to 30mph wind and be able to carry payloads up to four pounds.  Some of the cameras are capable of capturing 5cm-pixel imagery. He said that a camera such as the Tetracam Lightweight Agriculture Digital Camera fits in a small UAV and costs around $5000.
If you get a chance in the future to learn more about UAS and UAVs, it would be time well spent as I believe this is an industry in the early stages of growth.