Texas universities flying drones

Unmanned aircraft used to map and track natural resources

Researchers from Texas State University take one of their unmanned aerial vehicles out for a test flight.

SAN ANTONIO – For years, the military has been using unmanned aerial vehicles to launch strikes on targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After proving themselves on the battlefield, drones are now being used in a variety of domestic operations.

The Federal Aviation Administration was recently forced to release a list of all the domestic drone programs in the U.S.

Many of the 63 drone programs involve law enforcement, including the government and police departments. The rest are programs being run at public universities.

Two of the schools authorized to fly drones are in Texas.

Thom Hardy is a professor at Texas State University. He's the chief science officer for the school's River Systems Institute and is overseeing their drone program.

"We wanted to provide a low-cost, effective, easy-to-use system that a natural resource agency, a field office with the Fish and Wildlife Service or Texas Parks and Wildlife could afford to purchase and staff," Hardy said. "It could be used for monitoring, for assessment of prescribed burn effectiveness, monitoring watersheds in terms of changes to land use and land cover."

Hardy has helped design the drone that is really nothing more than a Styrofoam wing that is stuffed with cameras and computers. 

While most drones can costs millions of dollars, Hardy designed his for around $20,000. Aside from an inertial motion unit and flight control computers the drone uses mostly consumer grade electronics.

"That kept the cost down. It's easy to fix, easy to repair and maintain and that was very important to us in terms of real world applications," Hardy said. "If it's too sophisticated, things go wrong and it's very expensive."

Hardy's drone has been used to monitor rivers and canals, track wildlife and map large tracks of land all of which has traditionally been done using helicopters and airplanes.

"Because it's very cheap, it takes the pilot and an observer out of the aircraft so it increases the safety issues associated with a lot of high risk activities in monitoring," Hardy said. "It is a remote control airplane just like a hobby airplane. The key, though, is that we can push a button and it will fly completely autonomously on the preprogrammed flight line. If it loses signal lock or GPS, it's smart enough then to go into a holding pattern and wait for us to tell it to come back."

Right now, Hardy is conducting a two-year study with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to evaluate the use of drones to replace their manned aircraft operations that can be costly and dangerous.

"It doesn't take much of  a mistake. Unfortunately, a couple years ago, they actually lost an aircraft and air crew to an accident and that was one of the motivations to begin examining potentially other architectures," Hardy said.

Down on the coast, researchers at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi are using a drone to track wildlife and map the entire coastline, which could be important in helping land owners know where their property lines are after a hurricane blows through and erodes the beaches.

"The land owner wants to know where their boundary is at but it's difficult because we use the vegetation line or how high the seas may be up. What we need to do is to be able to capture where their boundary line might be before the hurricane," Dr. Stacey Lyle said. "So we could put this aircraft up in the air, have it fly for 16 hours mapping that vegetation or that boundary line before the hurricane comes and then it helps for the state and the private land owner to be able to reestablish that line."

According to Lyle, so far, their drone has only flown one flight in Texas, the rest have been test flights conducted elsewhere.

He sees a future where drones will become a common tool used for a variety purposes.

"Ultimately, we could see that a farmer could take it out every day and launch it and map his field," Lyle said. "A wildlife management person could launch it and count how many deer or wildlife he has every day or somebody could look at the traffic patterns and information daily but you want to make that data quickly get in the hands of the decision makers and that's done with the software we are developing here at the university

As the use of drones expands in the U.S., so do concerns about their impact on privacy. Some worry the drones equipped with cameras will further invade our private lives but the researchers disagree.

"They're not doing anything that the manned aircraft are not already capable of doing and they're not doing anything that is more invasive than the manned aircraft that are currently being used by our public safety," Lyle said. "These aircraft will never invade your privacy as set by state and federal laws."

Thom Hardy said the FAA has very strict rules in place for flying drones that prevent them from being used to spy on citizens.

"That information that people are concerned about is already out there and available. We're very careful, we're not interested in anything related to that. We're interested in natural resources," Hardy said. "The cost benefit and safety issues would be a major downside if something were to come out that would restrict the use of these systems. It's the turnkey that opens the door to research that solves real world problems."

About the Author:

Tim Gerber

I've seen a lot of weird things, met a lot of interesting characters and learned from each new experience.