ANTIGO, Wis. (AP) — The hottest things in aeronautics aren’t stealth bombers, fighter jets, or even a jumbo airliner.
They are drones, more properly known as UAS, or unmanned aerial systems, and the Langlade County Airport is at the epicenter of their development, the Antigo Daily Journal reported.
The county has long played a key role in aviation history, dating back to 1911 when Wausau’s John Schwister brought the state’s first-home built airplane to Antigo and flew it at the Langlade County Fair.
Now, Antigo native and retired Air Force pilot Don Bintz, who jets between his family farm here and his home near Las Vegas, has undertaken a no-less-historic project. He has established an outpost of his company, Unmanned Systems Inc., at the airport, creating a center for research, development and training on the cutting-edge technology.
“This is one of the few approved public airports that the FAA has approved as a testing facility for UAS operations in the United States,” Cameron Berg, who oversees the facility here, explained, stressing the company’s stable of licensed pilots, technical knowledge and Federal Aviation Administration certifications. “We are taking the proper steps to do this the correct way.”
The unmanned systems first gained attention in warfare, replacing the necessity of sending pilots and expensive fighters into harm’s way. Bintz was part of the team that developed the Predator drones used in reconnaissance and other various missions in the Middle East.
It has now ventured into the private sector through its Sandstorm UAV, a fixed-wing UAV with a 15-foot wingspan, available in either gas or electric configurations. Remotely piloted via USI’s proprietary Internet control technology, the Sandstorm can be flown from ground control stations that are hundreds, or even thousands of miles from the aircraft’s actual location.
A month ago, Berg and Horzewski brought a UAS to assist in the search for a missing three-year-old boy in a cornfield northwest of Antigo, and it proved invaluable for orienting searchers as they traveled through the maze of stalks.
“We have a thermal imaging camera, but it was at our testing facility in Montana when we needed it for the search. We still offered our services with the equipment that we had on hand,” Berg said.
The team now possesses a high-tech thermal imaging UAS. Berg said that if they had had it when the boy went missing, “we probably would have found the child that night.”
Berg also shoots video from the sky, useful for everything from sporting events and news stories to real estate listings.
“It provides a bird’s eye view,” Berg said. “It’s totally different to see something from 40 to 50, or even 200 feet up. We can really get some unique shots.”
Horzewski, who joined the company a month ago, focuses on construction surveying, using a surveying system known as LiDAR, which measures distance to a target by illuminating it with a laser light.
The lasers are mounted on the drones and are able to gather three dimensional images of the ground below, even beneath the trees. That’s gained the attention of local firms such as Krueger & Steinfest, which uses the information to determine grades for road and other construction projects and surveyors.
“It’s a much faster way to determine the topography of an area,” Horzewski said. “It creates an accurate topo model to determine cuts, the amount of fill and other requirements. It’s really an amazing tool.”
LiDAR is also used in agriculture, where the unmanned systems can scan fields from above and measure field slopes, to determine if there are any high or low spots that are receiving too much or not enough irrigation.
“It helps the growers get the best use of their fields,” Horzewski said. “It saves money by accurately placing irrigation systems where needed.”
Another growing area for Unmanned Systems is law enforcement. In addition to search-and-rescue, drones equipped with thermal cameras can track fleeing suspects, aid in hostile situations, and ensure that law enforcement officers stay out of harm’s way.
As with any cutting-edge technology, there are concerns over privacy and that is an area being ironed out by the Federal Aviation Administration and its stringent requirements, which Bintz’s company closely follows.
“We operate under the Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 107, as well as rules set in place from our Section 333 Exemption,” Berg said. “We are all professional pilots who are here to help.”
When Schwister and his “Minnesota Badger” flying machine visited Antigo just eight years after the Wright brothers and their Kitty Hawk flight, few could imagine how the technology would evolve.
It’s a similar process today.
“Just about anything can happen,” Berg said. “It’s really interesting to see what will be available in the next century of aviation.”