– See more at: http://theroanokestar.com/2014/10/07/aerospace-student-pilots-unmanned-planes-with-eye-toward-future/#sthash.zlc9u4uQ.dpufWhen Mark Palframan sets to work, he’s at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Research Farm. No dirt is involved, though. His hands are on a souped-up remote control device, and his eyes look to the air, set sharp on the unmanned E-SPAARO aircraft as it soars 400 hundred feet above the ground. The Electric-SPAARO — short for Small Platform for Autonomous Aerial Research Operations — is a small unmanned aerial system operated by Virginia Tech’s Nonlinear Systems Lab that can fly either autonomously or by remote control.
Aerobiologist David Schmale hunts killers. An associate professor of food safety and plant biosecurity at Virgina Tech, Schmale sends drones armed with petri dishes into the atmosphere to capture airborne crop pathogens. The data he has gathered explains how pathogens ride on wind currents and provides a glimpse into an almost unknown ecosystem far above our heads.
Schmale developed his unmanned aerial vehicles with a colleague at Virginia Tech as an alternative to costly manned research flights. With the data he has collected thus far, Schmale has built a model of atmospheric circulation that shows large sections of air sweeping across the face of the planet like waves across an ocean, transporting dust and microbes thousands of miles. “Microbes can move across continents and jump major oceans,” Schmale says. He’s planning to adapt his model to predict the movement of plant pathogens, which could help farmers preemptively protect their crops by describing where to strategically deploy pesticides.
Yesterday met tomorrow over a Pungo cornfield Thursday.
A drone – looking like a spider, sounding like a swarm of bees – was introduced to farmers at the Virginia Ag Expo. Armed with a camera, it promises those who work the soil a view from the air, a vantage point that can help growers spot crop trouble before it’s too late.
But they’ll have to wait. The crop drone, despite its worthy mission, is lumped in with others of its kind – grounded, for the most part, by safety and privacy concerns.
“The technology is ahead of the regulations,” said Jim Owen, a member of the research team that developed the drone. An assistant professor from Virginia Tech, Owen works out of the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center on Diamond Springs Road.
Drones – most civilian versions, anyway – aren’t much different from the remote-controlled aircraft that hobbyists have flown for years. Both are “unmanned aerial vehicles” – or UAVs. The hobbyist, however, can fly with little or no oversight, while a craft like the crop drone – considered a commercial UAV – requires operating authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, a laborious process.
“A farmer can own his land,” Owen said, “but he doesn’t own the airspace above it.”