US Army Corps of Engineers
Jacksonville District

Unmanned Aircraft Systems working group examines capabilities, future opportunities

Published Aug. 20, 2013
Roseate Spoonbills and the endangered West Indian manatee are among the species that call the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge home. If approved to fly the restricted airspace over the refuge, unmanned aircraft systems may provide potential, unobtrusive opportunities for research, environmental and wildlife data collection.

Roseate Spoonbills and the endangered West Indian manatee are among the species that call the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge home. If approved to fly the restricted airspace over the refuge, unmanned aircraft systems may provide potential, unobtrusive opportunities for research, environmental and wildlife data collection.

A pad fire between two NASA space shuttle launch pads at Kennedy Space Center in May 2011 was sparked by a lightning strike in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Prescribed burns occur regularly at the MINWR to reduce hazardous fuel loads, reduce encroachment of woody vegetation and to replenish nutrients to the soil.  Potential UAS flights would assist with not only wildlife and environmental data collection, but also prescribed burn support.

A pad fire between two NASA space shuttle launch pads at Kennedy Space Center in May 2011 was sparked by a lightning strike in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Prescribed burns occur regularly at the MINWR to reduce hazardous fuel loads, reduce encroachment of woody vegetation and to replenish nutrients to the soil. Potential UAS flights would assist with not only wildlife and environmental data collection, but also prescribed burn support.

A group of leaders from the University of Central Florida, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, University of Florida, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), Space Florida and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) gathered June 24 to discuss the possibility of using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) around the Cape Canaveral area.

The workshop examined the opportunities for research, environmental and wildlife data collection using UAS in the restricted airspace over the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) and KSC.

The downsizing of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program led to many layoffs. The UAS capability for MINWR and KSC flights would potentially lead to a test flight center for research and applications as well as a way to employ some of the nearly 8,000 highly-trained scientists living in the area.

“Air space is already there, which is the most attractive aspect,” said John Lambert, research associate, Unmanned and Robotic Systems, Institute for Simulation and Training, University of Florida.  “We wouldn’t be flying just to fly; there’s something interesting and that data can be recorded and collected. Flights would fulfill necessary pilot flight hours, while actually collecting valuable data for wildlife researchers and educational programs.”

The Jacksonville Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program has been operational since 2011 and has flown approximately 200 different missions in various places around the state of Florida.   Possible missions include monitoring invasive species, beach erosion, the structural condition of levees and canal banks and conducting biological investigations and wildlife census.

Upcoming missions include pollution monitoring and boundary survey marking. The technology also allows 3-D data gathering missions, both with and without ground truthing. These types of missions will be used to fly Florida beaches for renourishment projects, to fly jetties to determine their condition and to fly disposal areas to do quantity estimations. These potential missions are all dependent upon Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval.

“Our operational experience could be valuable in trying to duplicate work that has already been done,” said Larry Taylor, UAV project manager. “We feel that, at least for the platform we fly, we have moved past the research phase into operations.”

The UAS Working Group is examining the feasibility of establishing a training center that would also serve to gather valuable environmental and educational data in the MINWR and Kennedy Space Center area. One potential idea is to work with private and government agricultural industries. A UAV would be able to fly over a field to determine crop health and yield production and produce a comparison over time. The health of the whole field can be assessed in 15 minutes, a significant time savings over physically walking the area. However, FAA regulations restrict all non-government flights. The Corps is restricted to a five-mile radius outside of small airports and population centers.

“While wildlife refuge burns are an environmentally conscious effort to remove fuels, they also create training opportunities for UAS pilots to learn how to fly during burns,” said Lambert.

The UAS working group aims to bring people together who would have use for overhead censor data to help them accomplish their jobs and their research. UAS have the ability to increase human potential. By flying into hurricanes, over wildfires and collecting wildlife data, these machines are saving human lives. The mortality rate of low-flying helicopters used to collect wildlife data is extremely high.

“Moving forward we will closely monitor the progress of UAS operations in the national airspace as this develops with the FAA,” said Lambert.

The latest in civil technologies will be on display at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems 2014 event, to be held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. May 12-15, 2014.