CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi will conduct unmanned aircraft training and scientific research missions over South Texas ranchland from Monday, Jan. 14, through Friday, Jan. 18.
The unmanned aircraft, commonly called a “drone,” will acquire data including images of vegetation, water, roads, and mudflats. During the mission, the University’s RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will carry onboard a multi-spectral camera which will acquire images in the visible, infrared (IR), and ultraviolet (UV) frequency ranges.
“A major goal of our current research is to develop the ability to combine the different types of images to detect oil spills and other pollutants on water surfaces,” said Dr. David Bridges, Director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative in the College of Science & Engineering. “The high definition images will also be used to detect roads, waterways, and other geographic features used in geospatial information systems to create high-accuracy maps for tracking phenomena such as coastal erosion.”
Bridges, who will supervise the week’s training, adds that the data can also be used to detect fires where the hot spots of the fire are obscured by smoke, and to track wildlife after dark. He says the missions will provide researchers with the information they will need to make use of the payload for targeted research and specific applications.
“These missions are preliminary to much more robust research missions scheduled for March,” said Dr. L.D. Chen, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Science & Engineering. “We believe certain private-sector industries and government agencies will be very interested in the outcomes of our spring missions.”
The University missions will be flown in airspace certified by the FAA for unmanned aircraft operations at less than 3,000 feet near the Intracoastal Waterway south of Baffin Bay. The certified air space also includes significant portions of the Padre Island National Seashore and Gulf of Mexico coastal waters where previous missions have been performed.
“This is an important step for our trainees, including several students,” said Bridges. “They will assume a number of the operational roles during the March research missions, and these exercises will mark a crucial advance in the development of the university’s UAS capability.”
RS-16 manufacturer American Aerospace Advisors Inc. (AAAI) will train six University personnel in various aspects of the aircraft's operations, including ground-crew activities and the roles of mission commander and observer. The training exercises and scientific missions will make use of a multi-spectral payload of high-definition video, infrared and ultraviolet cameras. An on-board computer system will capture image data from the three cameras simultaneously and tag the location of each image using global positioning system (GPS) data. The system was assembled by AAAI.
“Our private-sector partner is investing a great deal of time and effort in this project,” said Bridges. “We see this as pioneering research and development for an industry as well as for the University.”
The missions come at a critical moment as Texas A&M-Corpus Christi leads a statewide effort to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to designate Texas as a test range for technologies that will allow large and small unmanned aircraft to operate safely in the national air space.
Dr. Luis Cifuentes, University Vice President for Research, Commercialization and Outreach, said research was but one piece of a complex effort.
“We call it the Lone Star UAS Initiative,” Cifuentes said. “We're not the only state in this hunt. There are at least 40 others. To be competitive, we will need all of the pieces working together – industrial, military, research, governmental and political.”
The University’s January missions are but one demonstration of Texas' operational capacities, Cifuentes said. “We want to establish a track record, not just here but wherever Texas entities have operational COAs.”
University President Flavius Killebrew said, “UAS research and development promises to be what some are calling the next ‘Kittyhawk moment’ in aviation history. For the sake of our economic growth, Texas must be a player.”