Over a vineyard in Middleburg, Va., an unmanned airborne vehicle (UAV) flew above the acres of grape vines, looking for discolored leaves and slow-growing plants, relaying the information to the farmer to use additional fertilizer or irrigation to fix the problem. This was just one practical use for the pint-sized aircraft. Now the Federal Department of Transportation is experimenting with UAVs to monitor traffic, do mapping and help with homeland security.
"It's initially designed for agricultural purposes. We'll fly over their vineyard and track growth," said Ernest Carrol, with GeoData Systems Inc., citing a recent case study that showed "they [the vineyards] could increase their net by 30 percent by using our technology."
Carrol was with a group at the "Unmanned Airborne Vehicle (UAV) Platforms for Transportation" forum at the Springfield Hilton on Wednesday, May 21, which explored uses for the airplanes. Instead of grapes, the group looked at transportation uses such as traffic snarls, accidents, construction and terrorist concerns
Michael Martin, with Volkert Associates, noted an example of how the UAV could have been used on the highway.
"This happened just yesterday," Martin said. "There was a backup on the highway, and then it cleared up. Traffic got back up to 65 [mph] until the next slowdown, and there were cars running into the back of the stopped cars. It could have been avoided if they knew there was a slowdown in traffic up ahead."
Notifying the drivers was another story. Martin thought the use of the digital highway warning signs or an automatic signal mechanism in the car would have done the trick.
Interchange Information Office at Springfield Mall has cameras in use, but they are stationary. Two are situated on the Tower Center Building above the Interchange construction, and one is on the Hilton Hotel on the other side of the highway. Although they show accidents and disabled cars in the heart of the "mixing bowl," they don't show the massive backups that are caused by the mishap, and there's no way to let the drivers know. According to Interchange Information specialist Steve Titunik, being stationary is a drawback.
"These are land-based. They give you information of only what's happening there," he said, adding that with having cameras on a movable platform, such as a UAV, "you add a whole another depth perception. Here's the way to have aerial reconnaissance, such as how far back is the tie-up."
WHILE SOME of this technology is in use now, other aspects of it will not be anytime soon. The technology is being tested at four places: Mississippi State University, where researchers are trying some environmental applications; University of California, Santa Barbara, with infrastructure management; University of New Mexico, with hazards and disaster management; and Ohio State University with multi-modal transportation flows. In addition, New Mexico was interested in using UAV's to monitor the border with Mexico, according to Joe Delcandore, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation Research and Program Administration. According to Dr. K. Thirumalai, chief engineer in the Innovation, Research and Education Research and Special Programs Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation, UAVs could be used within the next two to three years.
While the UAV on display at the Hilton was a $42,000 model, weighing less then 55 pounds and outfitted with a camera on the front, a $150,000 model exists with nine sensors, including cameras, a video system and hazardous-material detectors.
The nine-sensor model is all radio- and computer-controlled but has a joystick for manual control, which is used in emergencies only. Dr. Steve Morris, president of MLB Corp., said the UAVs under 50 pounds and flying under 1,000 feet are classified as model airplanes by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and they require no clearance or flight rules.
"We think the small airplanes minimize the problems with flying in national airspace. The whole thing is very blurry, very gray. I don't know what will come out of this," Morris said.
"The FAA is reviewing the UAVs’ federal air regulations," Micheal Mele, vice president of Geodata Systems, added.
One example Morris used for the homeland security aspect of the UAVs was a video, shot from a UAV flying around a nuclear power plant. Any wide area could be monitored like that. The UAV can be controlled by a computer in a remote location. Another use could be at a hazardous-material spill. Instead of putting a person in harm’s way to see what spilled, just send a UAV with a chemical sensor.
"This is a real way to assess a factor in a hazardous-material incident. You just click on a map, and it will go there. You don't need to be an expert pilot," Morris said.
WITH ANY MONITORING system, the concern of a Big Brother-like surveillance keeping track of the public comes into play. Larry Harman, director at the Moakley Center at Bridgewater State College in Massachussetts, addressed the question of civil liberties.
"None of us want people spying on us. After Sept. 11, 2001, there's a new reality for this bird. This will help us understand who is trying to get into our transportation infrastructure," he said.
Although the cameras can spot cars on the road, reading the license plate is a different story. Gus Ordonez, of Honeywell, a technological company, noted the weight problems associated with cameras sensitive enough to record license plates. Although the military does use those cameras, its UAVs — such as the "Predator" of Iraqi fame — are quite a bit larger than the 20-pound UAV forum-participants had in mind.
A terrorist packing a plane full of anthrax and flying it into the White House or anywhere else always remains a possibility. Harman said that terrorists look at destruction on a bigger scale, even though someone wreaked havoc in the Brentwood Postal Facility by merely putting a small amount of anthrax in an envelope.
"He [the terrorist] can find much more effective ways than using a UAV," he said.
According to Thirumalai, the next step would be to procure a few UAVs for state and local agencies to meet specific requirements and train them to try it for transportation applications.