Drone Research for Farming Takes Off – DTN

Image by Kay Ledbetter, Texas AgriLife Extension

Key members of the House and Senate last week praised the Federal Aviation Administration for selecting a consortium of mostly land-grant universities to research unmanned aircraft systems issues.

The legislators promised to continue to find funding for the centers beyond the initial $5 million provided.

The consortium is known as the Alliance for System Safety of Unmanned Aircraft Systems through Research Excellence (ASSURE). It is tasked with identifying issues critical to the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — also referred to as drones — into the nation’s airspace and engaging in research and policy development on the growing use of unmanned aerial systems.

At a May 14 news conference, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that unmanned aircraft is being used for everything from filming to monitoring wildlife, but that it is the duty of the FAA “to make sure it is safe.”

“Unmanned aircraft technology is here to stay, and we are all excited that our states will have an active role in figuring out the safest and most efficient way to incorporate this evolving technology into our airspace to assist on issues ranging from precision agriculture to disaster recovery,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said.

“We are interested in continuing to support what will be a collaborative process to address the complicated nature of integrating unmanned aircraft into our national airspace system, as well as privacy and other issues that arise with their use,” Cochran said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he is extremely pleased that the University of North Dakota “is a key member of the UAS team selected for the Center of Excellence. UND brings not only its resources as a premier school of aviation, but also the northern tier UAS test site and the Grand Sky Technology Park.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted that “Alaska is the final frontier” and that “unmanned aerial systems can be game changers for my state — to work around our vast distances and lack of infrastructure.”

“Whether in the form of Arctic research, delivering goods in the bush, firefighting or policing in rural areas, UAS deserve serious and thoughtful consideration as we map out an intelligent rulebook for their use and applications,” Murkowski said.

Rep. Kevin Kramer, R-N.D., said the biggest commercial application of unmanned vehicles may be in agriculture. Through precision agriculture, he said, there will be “the opportunity to grow more food for more people.”

ASSURE members include Mississippi State University, Drexel University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kansas State University, Montana State University, New Mexico State University, North Carolina State University, Oregon State University, University of Alabama-Huntsville, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, University of Kansas, University of North Dakota, Wichita State University, Ohio State University, University of California-Davis, and Louisiana Tech University.

Associate members include Auburn University, Concordia University, Indiana State University, Tuskegee University, and University of Southampton in England.

The directive to the FAA to establish the national center has been included in congressional appropriations bills since the 2012 financial year, with Congress appropriating $5 million to support a five-year agreement with the UAS Center of Excellence, Cochran’s office noted in a news release. Federal funding will be matched by ASSURE team members.

The FAA expects the Center of Excellence to begin research in 2015 and be fully operational in 2016 in its exploration of evolving technological developments regarding unmanned aircraft and their uses, including detect-and-avoid technology, low-altitude operations safety, privacy safeguards, and other areas, according to the Cochran release. Research will also involve the deployment of UAS for emergency response, biofuel and clean fuel technologies, law enforcement activities, and agricultural and environmental monitoring.

The Center of Excellence will coordinate research and development activities with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Agriculture and other agencies, Cochran added. Its work will also lead to recommendations on aircraft certification, flight standards and air traffic requirements, and facilitate UAS technology transfer to other civilian and defense agencies.

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