Oregon State University Forms Consortium on unmanned aerial remote sensing

Oregon State University is forming a consortium with industry, academia and government to develop a new era of unmanned aerial systems for remote sensing, to perform tasks that range from environmental monitoring to fighting forest fires, protecting crops or aiding law enforcement.
OSU and its partners will coordinate closely with the Oregon Innovation Council to support unmanned aerial systems, including their use in forest fire monitoring and response. The university also expects to become part of a new national center of excellence, and make Oregon a focal point of an evolving, multi-billion dollar industry, while enhancing academic research and student education.

Officials will meet at OSU in early February to organize both the consortium and an application for a new “test site” for unmanned aerial research and development. Several of these will be set up by 2015 under a mandate from Congress to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Collaborators on all these efforts include Economic Development of Central Oregon, community colleges, local industry, the Regional Solutions Team and the state Department of Aviation.

“Business, industry and other academic institutions are joining OSU in this effort because we’ve been a national leader in the science and technology of remote sensing for decades,” said Rick Spinrad, OSU vice president for research. “Aerial and other unmanned craft are just the newest application of remote sensing, and everyone knows of our extensive expertise in that field.

“This holds enormous promise for scientific research, important advances in land management, and new jobs, educational programs and economic growth for the state of Oregon,” Spinrad said.

The future of remote sensing will no longer be limited to satellites or expensive, manned airplanes, helicopters or terrestrial platforms, experts say. It will include a multitude of new, unmanned instruments that fly, walk, swim or crawl, and perform many valuable tasks at far less expense than today’s technology. Their sophistication and low cost will allow a wide range of applications that were never before possible.

The military has already made extensive use of unmanned aircraft, organizers say, but the civilian uses of related technology for remote sensing is just beginning. And Oregon, which already has a large aviation industry in such fields as helicopters, small aircraft, aviation components and other technology, has an excellent opportunity to lead the science, research and industrial development in this area.

OSU expects to be one of several academic partners with Mississippi State University in a national center of excellence that will be sponsored by the FAA, officials said. Congress has given the FAA a mandate to integrate, by 2015, unmanned aerial systems into the national air space that it regulates. Prior to this, comparatively little has been done with unmanned aerial operations because of extensive restrictions, requirements for “line of sight” use and other regulations that have made its growth almost impossible.

The FAA is also planning several national test centers for this technology, and university officials say they will apply for one of those centers, along with partners in industry and other academic institutions. They plan to call it the OSU Unmanned Vehicle System Research Consortium.

“Oregon has perhaps the ideal geography in the nation in which to locate a test center,” said Michael Wing, an OSU assistant professor of forest engineering and expert in remote sensing.

“Within about 100 miles you can go from the Pacific Ocean to seashore dunes, coastal mountains, agricultural valleys, rivers, urban areas, many types of forest, volcanoes, lava fields, alpine peaks, canyons and high sagebrush desert,” Wing said. “The local ecology and climate can change radically within a few miles. There’s almost no place else in the nation with such a wide variety of terrain in which to conveniently test and perfect any type of remote sensing device.”

OSU has already conducted its first FAA-sanctioned unmanned aircraft flight last fall over McDonald Forest near Corvallis, in cooperation with industrial partners n-Link and Prioria. It provided live video imagery of the university’s research forest.

In the future, experts anticipate that these remote sensing devices might monitor environmental change, gauge forest health, or perhaps aid in forest fire fighting. They could improve agricultural management, detect and monitor the outbreak or spread of crop diseases, and improve fertilization and irrigation.

Applications in law enforcement are possible, especially where officers are stretched thin by having to monitor huge and sometimes remote geographic areas. The lower cost of such technology might allow improved habitat monitoring for fish and wildlife surveys.

Historically, OSU has been a pioneer in many types of remote sensing.

Scientists have used NASA satellites to monitor marine phytoplankton, and the university is a leader of the Earth Observing System. It has extensive international programs in monitoring of climate and forest health. Monitoring has been done of sea ice, glaciers, crop agriculture, ocean currents, coastal shore erosion and in fisheries. OSU scientists have developed new ways to use LIDAR to study earthquake faults and tsunami impacts.

And on the morning of May 18, 1980, OSU geographer Charles Rosenfeld was flying around Mount St. Helens, underneath a monstrous, mushroom-shaped cloud, within hours of its catastrophic eruption. He helped with survivor search-and-rescue operations – while he also monitored ash flows, shattered timber and examined the mountain with side-looking airborne radar, even as it was self-destructing.

“There’s almost no limit to the range of remote sensing applications that OSU has been involved in, and helped to develop, in the past,” said Rob Holman, a professor in the OSU College of Earth, Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “But the unprecedented access and local control offered by unmanned technology makes this a brand new game – this will be a great opportunity for both researchers and students.

“There’s a lot of work to do, and it’s exciting to be getting in on the ground floor of yet another new technology,” he said.

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