While most people think of unmanned aircraft solely as military drones, a group University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers know from more than a decade of experience that the small aircraft are used to further science and engineering.
Thanks to an invitation from the Federal Aviation Administration, the University of Florida’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Program will be at next week’s 40th annual SUN ’n FUN Fly-In in Lakeland, the nation’s second-largest airshow, to discuss the UF program, its history, and its interdisciplinary design and research, including:
- Wildlife, ecology, conservation and agriculture;
- Mechanical and aerospace engineering;
- Geomatics (gathering geographic information, surveying and mapping);
- Photogrammetry (obtaining scientific data from photographs of wildlife, nesting, and alterations in environments);
- And statistical analysis of their findings.
“We’re just beginning to see what it can do,” said Franklin Percival, a United States Geological Survey scientist at the University of Florida, who has directed the UAS program since its inception 14 years ago. “We can assess populations of animals and delineate changes in a landscape. I’m confident as we move along – and others move along – it’s going to become a widely used resource for wildlife biologists and a powerful tool for agriculture.”
The aircraft that UF engineers have developed are much more sophisticated than they were when the program began in 2000. The current plane is hand-constructed out of high-density foam, fiberglass, carbon fiber, and three layers of Kevlar. It has a 9-foot wingspan, weighs 14 pounds fully loaded, and flies at an altitude of up to 1,200 feet.
It is hand-launched, has an average flight time of just under an hour and is capable of landing on water or the ground. The optical sensor is a commercial, off-the-shelf, 10 megapixel Olympus camera. A three-person team operates the aircraft over remote, unpopulated areas, and always within a 1-nautical-mile radius of the ground control station pilot.
“Our group leads the nation in applications for unmanned vehicles in natural resources,” said Peter Ifju, the Knox T. Millsaps Professor in UF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “It’s the coupling between the departments that gives us strength.”
The primary function of the UAS is recording imagery of natural resources-based subjects, including bird rookeries, alligator nests, manatee gatherings, crops, infrastructure and habitats. Those data can then be processed to provide accurate estimates of numbers of animals, measurements of vegetation or infrastructure status. The digital images can be archived in perpetuity for future research and public use.
The UF UAS Research Program is constructing new airframes, testing new materials, sensors and software, and investigating additional research applications to maintain the program on the cutting edge of emerging UAS technology.
“The opportunity to share with the public about what we are doing in the UAS realm here at UF, the opportunity to answer questions and clear up misconceptions about UAS is really invaluable,” said Matt Burgess, the program’s coordinator and a UF doctoral student.
The 40th Annual SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In & Expo runs from April 1-6 at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. More than 500 vendors and exhibitors will be on hand, with airshows every afternoon and special youth activities augmenting the forums, workshops, seminars and evening programs. More than 8,000 international visitors from 82 countries will be part of the fly-in, with 200,000 attendees expected.
UF’s program is one of the oldest university programs in the world and is diligent in conducting safe flight operations. UF researchers and engineers will be at the fly-in in hangar 13 at location E-3. Other UAS programs that will be exhibiting are from Georgia Tech Research Institute and Lockheed-Martin.
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