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Georgia Seeds the Future for UAS

R. Steven Justice 






By R. Steven Justice, P.E.
Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace

The aftermath of Amazon’s announcement to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in package delivery has the nation buzzing about how UAS will be used in the near future. Given the significant safety and privacy concerns of UAS use in highly populated areas, the consensus within the industry is that the first commercial applications of UAS is not in delivering your latest shopping order to your doorstep, but rather in agriculture. My colleagues and I at the Georgia Centers of Innovation for Aerospace and Agribusiness couldn’t agree more.

Agriculture is deemed the most promising next-step, commercial market for UAS because their use on large-scale farms and in remote rural areas renders arguments around privacy and safety of urban populations mostly moot. Because of Georgia’s strong foundation in the aerospace and agribusiness industries – accompanied by a strong state university system research and development infrastructure – we view the commercialization of UAS as the next large-scale economic growth opportunity for the state and for the nation as a whole.

According to a recent report published by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, “The Economic Impact of UAS Integration in the United States,” the first decade of civil UAS integration (2015-2025) will cause a $2.2 billion economic impact and create over 2,880 jobs… in Georgia alone.  This new category of job creation will seek to recruit the best and brightest engineers to manufacture such technologies to meet new regulations and applications in a new realm of implementation.

Although rolling out UAS in a commercial setting is not without its regulatory challenges, manufacturers have a running start on technological development. UAS will be ready to fly the moment the FAA loosens its restrictions, which we expect will be in 2015.

Promising UAS Technologies

Based on the research projects we have supported here in Georgia, the most promising technologies we expect to see integrated into agricultural UAS center on autonomous operation, sensing abilities and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) technology.

The first crucial element of successful UAS commercialization depends on the creation of an easy-to-use mobile platform that allows for autonomous operation. Global Positioning Systems will tell the autopilot where it is and where to go at all times based on the farmer’s commands. GPS will also be used to relay spatial data back to the farmer coinciding with other collected information.

The next critical element for commercialization is the sensor. The most important part of gathering the best data is utilizing a quality, and relevant sensor. From infrared to hyperspectral, sensors collect the data needed to analyze and improve crop yield. The challenge for data processers is to combine all collected data into one homogenous picture, and deliver it to the farmer in a timely and easy to understand format.  

The third critical commercialization element for agricultural UAS will be the full integration of ADS-B, a cooperative surveillance technology used for tracking aircraft. This technology will replace radar as the primary surveillance method for controlling aircraft. In the ADS-B system each aircraft transmits its current GPS provided position and flight path information to other aircraft and to ground controllers. Pilots will have real-time information displayed in the cockpit to assist them in avoiding other aircraft. UAS using ADS-B combined with “sense and avoid” technologies will be able to autonomously track traffic around the UAS and take action to avoid other aircraft or other obstacles. Full implementation of ADS-B will be key to providing safe operation of both manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace, thus facilitating the expanded use of commercial UAS.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in Field

Manufacturing UAS

UAS can be manufactured virtually anywhere; the more important aspect is the integration of the components into the system. In order to meet customer demands and build the world’s best systems, Georgia’s UAS companies source components and sensors from a multitude of global vendors, much like large aircraft OEMs Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Many entrepreneurial companies in the UAS segment are integrating commercially available components with proprietary computers and software to provide new capabilities for UAS. For instance, local companies Area-I and Adaptive Flight both are working with Georgia Tech on sense-and-avoid systems using commercially available GPS and ADB-D systems combined with a new software system to provide the capability for the vehicle to autonomously avoid other aircraft. The main product they’re selling will be avionics and software, which will be provided to other UAS manufacturers.

McDonough, Georgia-based Guided Systems Technologies is creating small UAS from commercially available model airplane and helicopter parts, but with significantly upgraded computer “brains” to greatly expand their capabilities. The company is also developing larger UAS using existing one-seat rotorcraft or fixed wing aircraft, and adding electronic flight controls and computer systems. The wide range of materials and manufacturing techniques being employed include foam and Fiberglas, metal, and other advanced composite materials.

The payloads carried by these vehicles generally are various sensors and cameras tailored to the specific application. For example, in a recent agricultural application testing project in Georgia, the UAS used a commercially available, multi-spectral camera capable of sensing green/red visible light, and near IR with a 3.2 megapixel CMOS sensor with manual focus and aperture. The same UAS can be reconfigured to carry other sensors, such as a small, normal and low-light camera pod with pan and zoom for public safety applications. The primary challenge centers on the integration of the sensors with the UAS, and the data links to beam the data to the operator.

Area-I, an Atlanta, Georgia-based company, designs complete aircraft from the ground up, utilizing weight-saving, advanced carbon fiber composite structures to enable far more capability than traditional model aircraft. The Area-I Prototype Technology Evaluation Research Aircraft (PTERA) has a high-strength carbon fiber composite structure requiring the use of very precise 5-axis machined molds and autoclave for curing. The finished aircraft, powered by two micro-turbojet engines and controlled by Area-I developed software, is used to test new aerodynamic technologies ultimately destined for use on manned commercial aircraft. Testing these new aerodynamic technologies on a UAS allows rapid maturing of the technologies at much lower cost and risk compared to traditional manned aircraft testing.

UAS Taking Flight

Research and development for agricultural UAV applications have been underway for years, and further refining of the technology occurs on an ongoing basis. Conversations between farmers and engineers, manufacturers and academics, are heating up, and they’ll only continue.

In addition, we’re seeing a proliferation of industry events dedicated to showcasing these types of technologies. Most recently, this past February, Tifton, Georgia hosted the AUVSI Unmanned Systems in Precision Agriculture conference.

The industry will be ready when federal regulations allow UAS to be deployed on commercial farms. Indeed, the industry is ready today. It’s just a matter of time before farmers begin capitalizing on the most game-changing advance in recent agricultural history.

Published Date : 3/27/2014

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