Posted at: 09/17/2012 3:17 PM
Updated at: 09/17/2012 10:44 PM
By: Chris Egert
U of M Students Aim to Take Drone Aircraft from Battlefield to Cornfield
You've probably heard about "drones" being used in the war in Afghanistan - unmanned aircraft that can fly into places un-noticed, either for surveillance, or to even shoot missiles.
What you may not know is that a group of University of Minnesota students are trying to harness the same technology for civilian use.
And the work is happening in a very unlikely place, a sod farm in East Bethel, not exactly considered a hotbed of aviation advancement.
But what’s being done there by a group of around 15 University of Minnesota students could change your mind about what a drone could be used for.
"Imagine in search and rescue, hurricane Katrina where lots of people are stuck on their roof during the flood," said project lead, Andrei Dorobantu.
The Edina native explains, "Our little hobby system here flies for 30 minutes."
Dorobantu says drones like the ones their team is working on, is relatively cheap, “Couple hundred dollars, maybe $200 for the kit."
Add the computer equipment and man-hours putting it together, and this little radio controlled airplane is probably worth around $10,000; a fraction of the cost of a military grade drone.
It can be mounted with a camera, so a farmer could use it to look over crops -- or livestock.
Sensors could be placed on the plane that could detect any number of things like moisture levels or heat.
Wildlife managers could use this view to track herds of wild animals.
But nothing like that can happen just yet.
Even though the students have wired the guts of the plane with equipment to chart its course with a computer – Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit it.
For now, the pilot has to use radio controls to fly the plane, and only in specific places.
In 2015, the FAA restriction will be lifted, allowing these University of Minnesota students, and other groups to get airspace, and to control the planes electronically.
And while a low cost plane flying over disaster scenes, or farm fields seems like a practical idea - there's another valuable service these planes could provide - testing, and data.
The students recently won a grant from NASA to use their drone to re-create the movements of larger commercial airplanes such as the Air France flight 447 that crashed in 2009.
Because no one really knows what happened to flight 447 - the U of M team will use their drones to electronically track the twists and turns -- and try to get to the bottom of the mystery of what doomed the flight that killed 228 people.
"There was a crazy stall, and basically it was falling out of the sky. We can take this guy and make it fall out of the sky,” remarked Dorobantu.
Things that they'd never be able to do with a full-sized, manned jumbo jet.
A handful of Minnesota student-researchers, whose mission could ultimately save thousands of lives.