North Carolina seeks to lead agricultural UAV niche development
It's hard to find a location more remote or lacking in creature comforts than the Hyde County Airport on Pamlico Sound in eastern North Carolina. The 4,600-ft. asphalt runway, tarmac and octagonal pilot hut are swallowed up by thousands of acres of farmland, competing with dime-sized mosquitoes and roaming black bears. The area is boxed in on three sides by restricted airspace buzzing with high-speed military jets.
Yet state officials here are betting $2.5 million that the location is perfect for their entree into the agricultural unmanned air vehicle (UAV) niche, a sector that is expected to boom when theallows such aircraft to begin flying in civilian airspace in 2015. Officials say an unpopulated, rural landscape is ideal for gaining experience with all manner of unmanned aircraft, and the diversity of established crops—corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and Mattamuskeet Sweets onions—will boost the applicability of the research and testing to a broader swath of the farming community.
“We're here to help the industry folks test their equipment and the operations people to test their service and business models,” says Kyle Snyder, director of North Carolina State University's NextGen Air Transportation Center (NGAT). “Farmers will want to come out and see how this works—to become smart buyers.”
NGAT launched the UAV program in June 2012, but received a big boost in July this year when the state legislature approved $2.5 million to build a UAV test site and staff the operation for two years while it becomes established.
Starting early next year, NGAT will upgrade the airport with more ramp space, security systems, a small tower to boost visibility around the test area and a hangar with creature comforts, including office space and a briefing room. The airport will also get its first instrument approach—an aid to customers who want to fly to the testbed—as well as an automated weather-observation system that will alert nearby general aviation pilots when UAV activity is in progress.
Snyder says the NGAT will ultimately be offering a comprehensive service. “In addition to a place to fly, we have the commerce and research angles here at NC State,” he says. “Customers can fly their own aircraft or ours. We can integrate their payloads. Our flight crews can show them how to fly. We also provide engineering support hours through the Aerospace Engineering Department at NC State.”
Snyder invited Aviation Week to observe the testing of three small remote-sensing platforms at the airport on Oct. 23.
Agriculture appears to be the sweet spot for what is expected to be a burgeoning market for commercial UAVs. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (Auvsi) predicts that precision agriculture will account for 80% of all commercial uses of UAVs. Precision agriculture includes remote sensing to determine crop health and surgical crop dusting, a practice that reduces the cost of chemicals and the runoff of pollutants. From 2015, when the FAA is required by law to integrate the vehicles into civilian airspace, through 2018, Auvsi expects an economic impact of $13.6 billion from unmanned aircraft operations in the U.S. For North Carolina specifically, Auvsi says UAVs will create 1,200 jobs and $600 million in economic activity from 2015-25. However, the state does not rank in the advocacy group's list of the 10 expected to see the most economic gain from UAVs, with California at the top and Pennsylvania at the bottom.
Regardless, North Carolina is in a race with several of the list's Top 10 states to become an established FAA research and development “test site” as part of a congressionally mandated program for makers and operators of UAVs to figure out how to best integrate their vehicles into civilian airspace. The agency says it will choose the locations for the six test sites in December, after which it will create a single Center of Excellence for UAVs, which Snyder expects will be won by a coalition of universities, hopefully including NC State.
In May NGAT submitted its 291-page bid to become an FAA UAV test site for the state, with a proposal that includes a 13 X 3-mi. flight-test area around the Hyde County Airport, to be called the Gull Rock site. The plan calls for testing vehicles as heavy as 1,500 lb., albeit without any exotic propulsion systems that could be problematic for crops.
More than 25 states, some in partnership with others, applied for the six test-site slots. But Snyder says winning will be more about political clout rather than the potential for government money in the form of grants, though he says there will likely be an easing of the case-by-case certificate of authorization (COA) process for the winners. Today, only public use and research organizations can gain FAA approval to fly in civilian airspace with a COA, which specifies the mechanical, operational and safety and other parameters required to fly one aircraft type at one location.
Once the FAA finalizes vehicle and pilot certification rules in the coming years, operators—including farmers— will be able to buy approved aircraft and begin flying and maintaining them with qualified operators. The ingredients will be in place first for smaller vehicles, with the U.S. Transportation Department targeting “routine” access to most airspace for certified aircraft weighing less than 55 lb. under line-of-sight control by 2015. Road maps call for an opening up of civilian airspace to larger UAVs in the 2020 timeframe.
To gain experience, in July the FAA approved restricted-category airworthiness certificates to theand Insitu , both weighing less than 55 lb., for commercial operations in the Arctic starting in September. Initial flights “went off safely,” according to an FAA spokesman. “We expect these projects will give the FAA and industry needed experience and a path forward to certify UAV for more commercial operations, both in the Arctic and elsewhere,” he says.
Until full access is granted stateside, operators like Snyder will continue to use the unwieldy COA process to fly, although he expects the FAA test-site winners will be granted blanket authority to fly UAVs weighing less than 25 lb. under a single approval.
Snyder currently has three COAs— for theVireo, Bosh Super Swiper and Condor 2 helicopter—allowing operators to fly them within a 1.5-mi. X 2.5 mi. X 400 ft. volume of airspace centered over the Hyde County Airport and 1,700 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton. Future plans are to increase the altitude to 1,500 ft. over the airport and as high as 5,500 ft. over 30,000 acres of farmland.
“We are talking with partners that have larger systems that want higher altitudes and longer durations,” he says. “We're not waiting for the FAA [test site] designation as we already have existing COAs at the location and will happily apply for more as industry partners and researchers look for access to airspace and equipment for testing integration concepts (sense-and-avoid) and new applications.
Starting next year, Snyder will begin offering potential customers two levels of membership to use the test site: a $5,000 membership in return for one week on the test range; and a $25,000 membership that comes with two weeks of testing and a membership seat on the NGAT board.
Business partnerships are blooming. Bosh Global Services is signed up as an in-kind partner and several others are on tap, says Snyder. Bosh, maker of the Swiper, Super Swiper and Condor UAVs through its Bosh Technologies subsidiary, is offering its aircraft and expertise in return for the experience gained and potential opportunities to sell its products and services in the agricultural market.
“Partners are providing equipment and staff support so that together we can capture data,” says Snyder. “That data is everything from safe airspace integration, product performance and reliability, to business case analysis.”
On Oct. 23, Bosh Technologies' director of engineering, Andrea Facchinetti, prepared a 9-lb. Super Swiper battery-powered UAV for a demonstration flight at Hyde, with clear skies but winds blowing at 15 kt. and gusting to 30 kt. The UTC Aerospace Systems Vireo had just completed its flight, touching down upright and gently in a mowed field adjacent to the tarmac, a shutter on the camera pod closing to protect the lens.
The Vireo comes with electro-optical, infrared and multispectral cameras carried in a two-axis gimbal pod on its belly. Operators hand-launch the Vireo and provide supervisory control using a tablet computer that shows the position of the vehicle on a map. The hand-launched, battery-powered 3-lb. autonomous aircraft comes with a two-axis gimbaled sensor package with electro-optical, infrared or multi-spectral sensors, data link and ground station. Multi-spectral sensors can measure crop health in terms of hydration, nitrogen content and indications of stress, says Snyder.
UTC's Vireo has a 1-hr. endurance and cruise speed of 25 kt. Randy Breedlove, an airspace consultant to NGAT, says UAV flights must take place in visual flight rules weather of at least 3 mi. visibility and 1,500 ft. cloud base. Operators use a portable VHF radio to listen for general aviation aircraft that might be approaching the airport. Snyder says operators, who must keep visual contact with the UAV, would most likely land the vehicle if another aircraft was nearby, although that is a rare occurrence at the remote location. The VHF handheld is not fail-safe, however, as aircraft are not required to be equipped with a radio this far from congested airspace, nor are pilots required to talk on a radio even if they have one. The COA requires contingency operations, including lost-link backup with the ground. Breedlove says the aircraft is programmed to fly to a rally point, where it holds for 3 min. before landing at a pre-determined location. The COA was established along irrigation canals that run through the area, allowing operators to stay within the approved lateral limits by “staying within the lines,” says Snyder.
Facchinetti began developing UAVs in 2000 after leaving the Swiss military, where he was in charge of UAV programs. He was also a pilot, flying transports, turboprops and helicopters. “I saw that unmanned aircraft systems did not take the human factors of the pilot into account,” he says of the state of the art in UAV design in 2000 when he started his own company, Emmen Aerospace, which was bought by Bosh Global Services in 2012. “I do my own systems with things that make sense.”
His pilot bias was obvious when the hand-launched Super Swiper had finished its short test flight, well under the aircraft's 2-hr. endurance, and the ground system, a laptop, issued a “Warning–low altitude” audio alert, followed by a “Warning–Low Airspeed!” alert, just before touchdown in the grass.
Facchinetti says operators develop flight plans using a Google Earth-type map, define the landing location and press a “land” button when the data collection process is complete. He says Bosh has sold more than 150 Swipers and a “few dozen” Super Swipers to date. Snyder also has a COA for Bosh's Condor 2 electric helicopter, but the wind was too strong for a flight on Oct. 23. Facchinetti also brought a larger, 10-hr.-endurance UAV called the Protector 10 to the test site, but Snyder does not yet have a COA to fly it.
“UAVs can make a huge difference in agriculture,” says Facchinetti. “They allow farmers to see problems in real time. It's cheap enough that you can [fly the UAV] every month and do an evaluation of the crop. Farmers used to wait until the season was over to evaluate and fix for the next year. This way you can increase the output in the same year.”
Facchinetti says fixed-wing UAVs are suited to remote-sensing applications that require more distance to be covered, while rotary-wing UAVs could be especially useful finding and fixing localized crop problems. The company is testing the Yamaha RMAX gas-powered helicopter for precision crop-dusting, a solution already used in Japan to dust rice fields. “You can detect a small area to spray, and put down the exact amount of chemical in the exact location.”
Remote-sensing is one of many applications on Snyder's road map for NGAT in 2014. “We're planning to refine our approach with more flying next year in tighter coordination with our crop science engineers and local crop consultants to look at specific wavelengths,” he says. “We will have the research agenda mapped out in early 2014 before the planting season begins, and may image the bare ground in preparation for planting season. We anticipate using this imagery and additional measurements to support improved yield-prediction algorithms and crop monitoring.”
As to whether the FAA will give his Hyde County operation the gold seal of approval with a test-site designation, Snyder is pragmatic. “We are the underdog,” he says. “We've come in late, but with this approach of having state-based industries and partners, we think we can make this an economic engine. If we're not selected as an FAA test site, we'll still be the go-to site for North Carolina.”
Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to watch video of the Oct. 23 testing of the remote-sensing platforms at Hyde County Airport on, or go to AviationWeek.com/video