With nearby airports notified that an unusual aircraft was about to take off, a drone rose from a Montgomery County field March 9.
The unmanned helicopter climbed to a training altitude of about 130 feet and roamed a few miles outside Blacksburg.
Drones aren’t only prowling the Middle East to try and incinerate terrorists. They fly over such American communities as the New River Valley.
Virginia Tech possesses six drones that it uses as limited-performance research aircraft. Engineering faculty and students on the ground control the aircraft with a remote and permit autonomous flight.
In addition to its work with robots and unmanned ground vehicles, Tech experiments with pilotless aircraft both to improve the technology of the platform and develop specific applications.
Improving the study of agricultural disease and the assessment and mapping of special environments, such as forests and explosion sites, are major project drivers. The work engages students and faculty, brings research dollars to the university and could lead to the creation of businesses, said Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tech and lead faculty member on drone work.
These flying machines, the accessories such as cameras and sensors that they carry, and the control mechanisms are referred to by Tech engineers as unmanned aerial systems — UAS for short — and not “drones.”
To call something a drone these days is to link it to warfare and the controversy over U.S. drone strikes that have killed suspected terrorists, including American citizens.
In fact, the specialty aircraft flown by Tech differ greatly from the fearsome “killer” drones that spy and attack.
Entities such as the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Virginia Small Grains Board have paid some of the drone-related bills for equipment and compensation of graduate students. Federal defense-related agencies have furnished financial support as well and could choose to apply some research results to weapons. But no weapons are being handled or developed in Tech’s drone programs, nor is the work classified or protected under national security safeguards, said Kochersberger, who also runs Tech’s Unmanned Systems Laboratory in a marked building near campus.
“What we do is fundamental applied research,” he said.
Drone crews at Tech are not without ambitions to take drones to new heights. Tech is positioning itself, along with the state of Virginia, to become a much bigger player in the unmanned aerial systems field.
Earlier this month Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office confirmed that Tech is the lead applicant in a joint Virginia-New Jersey bid to host and operate one of six drone test ranges to be established in the United States. There, industry, in cooperation with the FAA, will develop protocols by which to integrate drones into the national airspace.
The six successful applicants are scheduled to be named Sept. 27.
If the Virginia-New Jersey bid is successful, the range won’t be located at or near Virginia Tech. Which locations are being proposed has not been made public, however.
“Virginia Tech’s role would be very much supervisory,” said Craig Woolsey, an associate professor in Tech’s Aerospace and Ocean Engineering Department.
For more than a year, the public’s well-stoked curiosity about drones has zeroed in on Virginia Tech for a good reason. Last spring and again earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration released to the San Francisco privacy-rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation the names of dozens of public agencies in the United States that fly drones. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University appeared as an FAA-approved drone user both times, but without any description of why the university had them.
In the commonwealth, the FAA has identified three other drone users — Virginia Commonwealth University and the Chesapeake and Virginia Beach facilities of the U.S. Air Force.
It’s simplest to think of a drone as any advanced form of the remote-controlled airplane from days of old. Much the way game-changing technologies such as the Internet, night vision and GPS jumped from military to peacetime applications, the drone appears to be following a similar course.
Though nobody can say how many, scores of drones are already aloft. They go to scenes too dangerous for people, including some not reachable, and save time and money that would otherwise be spent on manned missions, advocates say.
The Arlington, Texas, police department, after extensive training, late in February received federal approval to fly drones, becoming the latest drone-equipped police force. It wants to survey multicar wrecks on interstate highways more quickly and with less officer involvement.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection checks the Mexican border with Texas using drones. The National Space and Aeronautics Administration sends drones to inspect hurricanes. Federal officials are slightly lifting the secrecy that has cloaked drone flights by defense and intelligence agencies in conflict zones.
In the recreational realm, remote-controlled toy planes, helicopters and quadcopters available at toy stores and websites have evolved to shoot aerial films and images and even tote payloads weighing tens of pounds over miles.
In spite of the progress, there is pent-up demand for more and better drones.
Energy companies want drones to examine infrastructure such as oil platforms. News organizations want drones to cover stories, movie makers to shoot films and real estate agents to better present property.
On orders from Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration expects to grant initial permission to private industry to fly drones in 2015. Right now, businesses can’t legally fly drones for commercial reasons, though Reuters reported that the FAA has investigated some who have.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Va., describes the prospects for the unmanned aircraft industry as “virtually limitless” and especially promising for agriculture and public safety.
The group said at least 50 companies that make drones, drone payloads or provided related products and services have a footprint in Virginia.
According to a study released this month, the U.S. drone industry could create 70,000 jobs and $13 billion of economic activity domestically between 2015 and 2018. States with accommodating regulatory and business climates will win biggest, the study said.
“Unmanned aerial systems or unmanned aerial vehicles have great potential in bringing high-tech, high-paying jobs to the commonwealth,” said Randy Burdette, who directs the Virginia Department of Aviation.
In this milestone-rich period for drones, others seek to put the brakes on. Although various government agencies have given assurances privacy will be protected when drones fly and that, above all, the loosening of today’s strict drone regulations will be handled responsibly and safely, some are not convinced.
The Charlottesville City Council on Feb. 4 asked staff to prepare a local law to ban drones “from airspace over the City of Charlottesville, including drones in transit, to the extent compatible with federal law.” The restriction would apply even to a hobbyist’s drone if it carries a monitoring device, such as a camera. Charlottesville now calls itself a “No Drone Zone.”
An even further-reaching measure was handed up by the Virginia General Assembly this month. A bill now on McDonnell’s desk would prohibit state and local police in Virginia from flying drones until at least July 1, 2015, on the belief that the state needs time to enact rules for police use of the technology.
The bill has exceptions for finding missing people, lost police officers and anybody suspected of injuring or killing a police officer and for conducting search and rescue operations.
McDonnell, who has voiced excitement about the potential of drones, had neither signed nor rejected the measure as of last week.
The drone that Tech flew recently — while training before an upcoming research mission — is spindly with a thin rear shaft supporting top and rear rotors turned by a 100cc engine, the size found on a small motorcycle. It stands about 3 feet high and 10 feet long and can hoist pounds of gadgets and accessories. The Swiss company that makes it charges $157,000. It belongs to the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
All of Tech’s flights happen at Kentland Farm, west of campus. There are no exceptions under the FAA’s current stringent drone regulations.
Even if, say, an area police agency needed a camera-equipped drone to find a lost child in a nearby woods, Tech would be unable to lend one of its flying machines.
Tech committed to the Federal Aviation Administration that it will keep its drones within the farm, which has a 300-foot drone runway and drone hangar, and within an altitude limit. Only ground personnel with excellent vision and overall health status are permitted to control them.
Area airports and pilots receive advance notice of flights. It’s one strategy to keep separate the 6,000 aircraft that take off and land daily at Virginia’s airports and the ever-expanding flocks of drones.