FAA authorizes UF for drone research

By on February 13th, 2013

The University of Florida has developed drones, or unmanned air vehicles, that can take high-resolution pictures for wildlife research.

The drones capture images of about one pixel per inch, a higher resolution compared to the one-pixel-per-foot images found on Google Earth, said Peter Ifju, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at UF.

The resolution makes it easier to see detailed wildlife. Using images of uninhabited areas such as the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, researchers can calculate an alligator’s size, how many species are in an area or map out invasive species.

Mechanical engineers have been working with wildlife researchers and the geomatics group to develop the vehicles for about a decade.

UF is one of 81 entities authorized by the FAA to use the drones, Ifju said. The team is also working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, which has its own authorization. UF is one of the first universities to receive an authorization, allowing for flyovers over a certain period of time, he said.

“We have a track record that goes back for more than a decade in terms of small flying machines,” Ifju said. “The University of Florida is one of the nation’s, if not the world’s, leaders in the development of unmanned aircraft.”

Plane crashes are the No.1 cause of work-related mortality in wildlife and biology, natural resources and conservation in Florida, Ifju said.

“If you can use unmanned air vehicles to collect the type of data that they would flying a Cessna or something like that, you’d probably save lives,” he said. “The type of data we’re collecting is far and above and more advanced than what you’d be able to collect with a manned airplane.”

Ifju has researched building planes with wingspans as small as 4 1/2 inches. He said the planes currently used for wildlife research have 9-foot wingspans.

“It’s like a big, radio-controlled airplane,” he said.

The drones are being used for research, not for surveillance or as weaponry. “It’s very different from what you hear in the news,” he said. “We never put any weapons on our airplanes. We don’t put any surveillance cameras and things like that.”

The research has been funded by the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Air Force, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Jensen Werley wrote this story online.

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