Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Drones Over West Virginia

The cover story of Smithsonian's Air & Space January 2013 issue is a must read for the engineering community - - Drones for Hire.  Drones could be coming shortly to the public works department as part of a new set of tools for infrastructure assessment and management.  Congress last February ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to open the skies to drones by September 2015.

From the article:

"Unpiloted vehicles—some light enough to be hand-launched and often small enough to fit into a backpack—are already being used for everything from forest fire spotting to animal migration studies. The military-surplus, 4.2-pound AeroVironment RQ-11A Raven is one of two types of drones now flying for the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS’s National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office flies its Ravens for land management agencies in the Department of the Interior. Each project requires a special waiver from the FAA, which can take from a few months up to a year to obtain. In one test project, a Raven has been examining drainage infrastructure at a West Virginia surface mine. The drone team requires a pilot plus two observers to watch for aerial traffic. After a half-hour to assemble the vehicle, set up the ground terminal (a rugged laptop), a generator, and a communications antenna, launching the fixed-wing Raven is as simple as turning on the motor and hurling it into the air like a javelin. The drone, which has stabilized and gimbaled optical and infrared cameras in its nose, can fly for as long as 90 minutes, beaming live video to a monitor. When the team members see something on the ground that needs more attention, they instruct the Raven to circle the target while the pilot adjusts the camera to keep it in view. The Office of Surface Mining then uses the images to pick out trouble spots, such as a landslide that has blocked the flow of contaminated water to a treatment pond, and an inspector will follow up on foot."

Aurora Flight Sciences' Skate is an example of a drone that the public works director could pull out of the front seat, lauch, and investigate a remote drainage structure.

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