Unmanned “Unplugged” – Best of 2014

Unmanned “Unplugged” – Best of 2014


In 2014, Increasing Human Potential had the pleasure of speaking with experts across the globe to learn more about how they are using UAS, the potential UAS carry, and where this emerging technology will take us in the future. In case you missed some of our interviews, we decided to share some of the best and most interesting tidbits we learned from our interviewees. Meet our experts below, and happy (almost) 2015!


On the humanitarian uses of UAS….


Dickens Olewe is the creator of AfricanskyCAM, a project working to use UAS in newsrooms in Africa. He has worked on data journalism projects, including a health portal to allow users to access information about health facilities in their countries. Olewe is also a fellow at Stanford University, where he is working on africanDRONE, which works to coordinate efforts of UAS users across the continent.

We asked Dickens Olewe how AfricanskyCAM is revolutionizing frontline reporting and how AfricanskyCAM’s services will change journalism in Africa:

Importantly, we want to set professional standards in UAS journalism. We aim to train journalists, advise on the use of the technology and kick-start content sharing among African media. We are also exploring the use of camera-equipped balloons and other uses of UAS, including deploying them to gather data.

Our work is deliberately meant to carve operation areas and increase awareness of professional UAS use. This is critical. At the moment, most countries in Africa have no guidelines for civilian UAS use, and the absence of such laws creates an environment where anyone can operate a UAS. This means that those of us who have professional interest in using UAS risk being shut down following an incident. We want to lead by providing best practice guides and working on a training and licensing regime that will ensure safe and professional operation. We are also reaching out to farmers, conservationists and emergency services industries that have professional interests in using UAS, so that we can lobby together for a favorable operating environment. The blanket ban of civilian UAS use by the South African government should serve as a wake-up call to the drone community that there’s a need to work together. I believe such proactive engagements will help us create a space for what’s a nascent industry and help protect its future.



Paola Santana studied at Singularity University, Matternet aiming to transform how essential goods can be transported around the world using small unmanned aircraft.

We asked Paola about the startup’s revolutionary concept and plans for the future, and specifically, what she learned from her field testing in the Dominican Republic and Haiti:

We wanted to learn a couple of things. First, is the concept valid? We started with the idea in 2011 to use UAS for delivery. There was not a market, an industry. There was really not an interest. We said, let’s go to places where these could really transform the way communities are linked to the social and economic hubs in cities and towns, and let’s see what happens. We proved, number one, that the roads many countries have right now are really deficient. When it’s raining, there’s no way to get from point A to point B. We actually experienced it. Number two, we wanted to see if this technology would work there. We were able to fly over the cities of Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince and over other rural areas and small towns. At that point, our range was only 10 kilometers, but we wanted to know if this short distance would make a difference, and we figured that 10 kilometers could help a lot. Third, we needed to get governmental support to make this happen. We tested the will of decision makers to implement this solution. In the DR, the support was 100 percent, getting the Institute of Civil Aviation backing our operations and providing the first experimental permissions. The risk to conduct these flight tests was high, but the government understood that the rewards and benefits were higher.

In Haiti, we flew over a refugee camp, where we delivered medicines and chocolates to the kids. And we were amazed that people were not afraid of the technology. They were waiting for the vehicles to land, to check what this “flying thing” was carrying. They now associate a vehicle with something good; a flying vehicle bringing things that they need to live.


Adam Klaptocz is a cofounder of Drone Adventures and an engineer for senseFly, which develops UAS for use in agriculture and mapping. He founded the organization in March 2013 and has since flown missions to map the Matterhorn, aid rebuilding efforts after the earthquake in Haiti, and survey areas affected by the tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

We asked Adam about Drone Adventures and his goal  to promote the great potential of UAS in civilian applications, focusing on conservation, humanitarian, cultural, and search-and-rescue domains. Specifically, what gave him the idea to found such an organization:

I’ve been working in the UAS industry for almost a decade. During this time I’ve met countless bright, caring people developing cutting-edge UAS technology to improve the human condition and help solve society’s greatest challenges. Instead of hearing about these people and their work, however, the media and the public’s perception of UAS has been focused on remote killing and invasion of privacy. Drone Adventures was founded to show the world the potential of UAS to do good through action and concrete, in-the-field results, change the public’s outlook on this great tool, and to help these pioneers in technology take pride in their work.



Simon Johnson is a director of the La Fondation Bundi, which sponsors the Flying Donkey Challenge. The challenge is working to pioneer a new transportation system using unmanned aircraft systems to deliver cargo over long distances, starting in Africa. Johnson is also a board member of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research in Robotics (NCCR).  

We asked Simon about the 2014 Flying Donkey Challenge and the various technical, legal, logistics, and architectural and design challenges. We also asked what practical benefits he sees it generating:

Flying donkeys are large cargo robots (maximum takeoff weight of 60 kilos) with rugged air frames capable of lifting heavy suitcase loads over long distances. The first commercial flying donkeys, due in Africa by 2020, will carry at least 20 kilos over 50 kilometers in less than one hour. Since Africa is growing too fast to build out its road network, transportation will have to be supplemented from the sky. It is hoped that tens of thousands of low-cost flying donkeys will be operating on established networks in Africa and globally within a generation, lifting Africa by creating jobs and enabling e-commerce and community-to-community exchanges in a shared economy.

For the 2014 edition of the Flying Donkey Challenge, we are organizing four enabling technology sub-challenges — No. 1 precision takeoff and landing, No. 2 GPS-denied navigation, No. 3 sense and avoid, and No. 4 cargo delivery) — an air show, and a conference to present, discuss and reward the best ideas related to the legal, logistical and business aspects of implementing simple, reliable, affordable and scalable flying donkey infrastructure and services in Africa as soon as possible.

Before 2020, with world media attention, the challenge will culminate in a race of flying donkeys around Mount Kenya in under 24 hours, delivering and collecting 20-kilo payloads along the way.


On using UAS for disaster response….


Daniel Serrano is a project coordinator at the Integrated Components for Assisted Rescue and Unmanned Search operations (ICARUS) and the head of unmanned systems at ASCAMM in Spain. His team recently worked on a project using UAS for search and rescue and mine detection following major flooding in Bosnia.

We asked Daniel Serrano, what are the possible applications of UAS in rescue and crisis management and why are they suited for this type of work:

UAS can enhance the situational awareness of the operators by providing aerial imagery. In ICARUS, a two-stage approach is followed, experimenting with two types of platforms: fixed-wings and rotorcrafts. The solar-powered unmanned endurance airplane in ICARUS is developed by the Autonomous Systems Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Fixed-wing craft are more suitable for undertaking an initial assessment as they cover larger areas in shorter periods of time, due to their ability to fly at high altitudes and at fast speeds. The recorded data may be made available to the ground station in real time or can be post-processed to generate high-fidelity maps of a disaster-stricken area. These models are then used to plan the intervention, select safe locations in which rescue operations can be based, analyze the traversability of roads for the ground teams, divide the area into sectors, (each of which is tackled by an individual SAR team) or other similar applications.

In ICARUS, we also work on two different hovering platforms. An outdoor coaxial quadrotor has been developed by ASCAMM (Spain) and a smaller indoor hexacopter has been designed by Skybotix (Switzerland). Rotorcraft play an important role when the scope is a smaller area, for instance, when search and teams arrive in their designated sector. Flying at a much lower altitude and capable of hovering, these tools provide a much more detailed assessment of a smaller area. For instance, they can be used for area and building inspection as well as the generation of detailed 3-D digital models for the purpose of structural assessment.

All aerial platforms can remain airborne for the duration of the intervention, operating together in synergy. The platforms are fitted with optic and thermal cameras that can be used for locating survivors. The outdoor coaxial quadrotor is able to deploy a survival kit, which is vital when victims are located in remote or inaccessible areas, as rescue personnel will not be able to reach them quickly. The smaller hexacopter is able to navigate indoors and can be used to search for survivors inside buildings.


Charles Devaney is the director of Project HALO (Help and Locate Operations) at Linking the World. He recently won the Drone Social Innovation Award for his work in disaster response following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

We asked Charles Devaney to tell us a little about Linking the World and how the organization involved in using UAS:

Linking the World is an international humanitarian aid organization that has worked in over 40 countries. After Typhoon Haiyan, I was on a panel at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where I presented the work I had done in Philippines using UAS. Linking the World’s CEO, Mina Chang, attended that panel with an interest in UAS and saw the value in the technology. Once we connected we decided to start a program within the organization called Project HALO, of which I am the director.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, We used both fixed-wing and multirotor UAS in the wake of typhoon to assess the level of damage that was caused by the storm. The information was used by local government and municipalities in their efforts to rebuild. We also imaged hundreds of square kilometers of area to assess damages to natural resources, such as rice and coconuts.


Robin Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and directs the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR). She has used robotics at disaster sites around the country, including the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Hurricanes Katrina and Charley, and the Crandall Canyon Utah mine collapse. She is also a founder of Roboticists Without Borders.

We asked Robin about what inspired her to get started with the Center for Robotic-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), which demonstrates how UAS can be a key tool of search-and-rescue operations, way back 2001, before UAS use became so commonplace:

I started researching rescue robotics in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombings, because it seemed like the hardware and intelligence for small planetary rovers being designed for Mars would have been useful — big heavy bomb squad robots were at the bombing but were too heavy to use without risking causing the structure to collapse further. John Blitch founded the CRASAR in 2001 just before 9/11 to transition the small ground robots from his DARPA Tactical Mobile Robots program to search and rescue, and I took over the organization in 2002. During Hurricane Charley it was clear that advances in small UAS from the DARPA Micro Air Vehicle program and similar DOD investments would be useful. Plus the damage to bridges, marinas and sea walls at Hurricane Charley showed that unmanned marine vehicles were needed.


On using UAS for environmental protection….


Shah Selbe is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and the principal investigator of SoarOcean, which uses UAS for ocean conservation. He is also the creator of FishNET, a platform that uses technology to detect and track illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing worldwide, and is the Southern California region representative of Engineers Without Borders.

We asked Shah, after he was recognized by the National Geographic Society as one of 17 Emerging Explorers  — people expanding the boundaries of what it means to discover new things – how he think UAS change the way we explore the world:

We are at an exciting time right now where the current limitations we have on the amount of information we can gather about our world are about to largely disappear. UAS will change the way we explore by allowing us to gather data more cheaply, safely and with a greater frequency than we are able to do with our traditional methods. Just look at our oceans for example. One of the most dangerous things that marine biologists and ocean conservationists do is get in small aircraft to gather data about what is going on in our oceans. But without those flights, we would lack important data to make decisions about the future of our oceans.


Lian Pin Koh is a cofounder of Conservationdrones.org, (along with Serge Wich) a project dedicated to sharing knowledge about the use of UAS for conservation and ecological research. Koh’s teams have done research in Sumatra, Madagascar and the Republic of the Congo. He is also an assistant professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide.

On an interview we asked Lian Pin Koh about his recent TED talk on using UAS to protect wildlife in Nepal and search for orangutans in Sumatra.

We have been helping the Directorate of National Parks and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Nepal in the country to develop a UAS for patrolling national parks. They are keen to use this technology to combat wildlife poaching. After several trips to Nepal and working with these partners on the ground, we customized two variants of UAS for them that can be flown completely autonomously from takeoff to landing. They have a smaller UAS that flies for about 20 minutes, and a bigger one that flies for 40 to 50 minutes. They will use these UAS to conduct aerial patrols between existing checkpoints to complement their foot patrols.

UAS will change conservation by reducing the cost of doing conservation and research. There are many potential uses that have not been developed yet, including the use of drones for tracking wildlife, and for retrieving images from camera traps placed in the forest.



Marc Goss is the manager of the Mara Elephant Project, which works to combat elephant poaching on the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. He recently started using UAS as part of these efforts, developing innovative applications of the technology in this new field. His work with UAS has been featured in Bloomberg and VICE.

We asked Mark about how did the Mara Elephant Project first came about, when it started using UAS and where he thinks the technology can take us:

MEP first developed as a response to the rapidly increasing poaching of elephants in the Mara ecosystem. The team consists of 30 rangers who furnish antipoaching patrols, ambushes and sting operations. We are currently based in five mobile camps over a huge area and have been responsible for arresting more than 90 ivory poachers in the last two years of operation.

We have collared 15 elephants across the ecosystem to identify where the elephants go, alert us when they are in problem areas and what brings them to certain areas. This information has been especially helpful in helping the Kenyan government and NGOs [World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy] identify areas which need to be looked at to conserve. This collar data has been the single most effective tool in quantifiably showing elephant dispersal areas. This data will in turn form the longer term elephant strategy plan for Narok County. We are funded by the Escape Foundation and other smaller partners.

We have been using the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 for aerial images and movies and [have been] experimenting with moving elephants out of dangerous areas. We have been using the UAS for about a year now. The project developed from a suggestion from a friend of mine who has been advocating the use of blimps for aerial mapping.

We are still very much in the testing phase, and we have been trying to get more UAS so that each ranger section has at least one — only then will we be able to start telling the true deployment usefulness of the UAS. Most of the poaching happens outside the national reserve known as Maasai Mara National Reserve [MMNR]. These areas are dispersal areas for elephants. Some of these areas are informally protected as conservancies. Other areas are community areas or group ranches.

I think in the next five years we will continue to see huge improvements in effectiveness of UAS for conservation. One idea that Frank Pope from Save the Elephants and I were discussing was a UAS that lives on an elephant’s back. It lands on the elephant and stays there sending vital information to satellites and then wakes up to fly above the herd while taking footage when the herd is in distress, crosses a geo-fence or hears gunshots. It could actually fly up and film the poachers and follow them while leading the ground teams in. Now that may be a far way off but would be pretty amazing. For one, elephants hate UAS or their noise so it might scare them too much. It would also have to be super strong to withstand a mud bath or going through thick bush.


On using UAS in agriculture….


Donna Delparte is an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at the Idaho State University. She is currently working with farmers in Southeast Idaho to study how UAS can be used to help assess crop health and detect potential issues.

We asked Donna, how do UAS play a role in visualization, 3-D modeling and analysis, specifically to avalanche flow modeling and hazard mapping, terrain models, land cover change, precision agriculture, and image analysis:

I currently have a couple of COA [certificate of authorization] applications in with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to fly hazard areas for snow avalanches and landslides. I am very excited about utilizing high-resolution imagery and terrain information to map and model avalanche and landslide potential. My current U.S. Department of Agriculture-supported research project this summer has been to examine agricultural crop health with UAS data. I have a fantastic graduate student with extensive agricultural sector work experience, Mike Griffel, partners at Boise State University, Idaho National Labs, University of Idaho; and the cooperation of farmers in southeast Idaho. We are currently looking at novel approaches to crop health and threat detection to assist farmers in the identification of potential issues. We’ve been working with farmers on concerns which are critical to them and their bottom line. It will be essential to identify what different sensing approaches are appropriate throughout the growing season. This research will continue next year, and what we’ve learned over this summer will inform our decisions for next year’s data collection.



Robert Blair is one of the pioneers of the use of UAS for precision agriculture in the U.S. Since 2006, he has been using UAS on his farm in Kendrick, Idaho. He blogs about his experiences at The Unmanned Farmer.

We interviewed Robert and asked about how he uses UAS on his farm:

UAS are used to help enhance traditional crop scouting at this time. In order for a farmer to make management decisions, they need to know what the crop is doing. Currently scouting is done by walking or riding a four-wheeler or motorcycle through the field, and just a percentage of the field is seen. UAS allow a farmer to see 100 percent of the field and then identify any anomalies that need to be inspected closer.

These anomalies could be fertilizer needs, insect damage, fungus or disease, water needs (if irrigated), weeds, or any other type of area that stands out. By identifying these areas, a farmer can use the GPS coordinates to closely inspect and take samples for testing, such as soil or tissue samples.

The scouting information from a UAS is a great way to understand exactly what is going on in a field, because the changes from the ground level might be gradual, but in the air the areas are more easily defined.

My personal use of UAS successes has been to use the information to identify wildlife damage in crops. The saying a picture is worth a thousand words is very true with UAS images. Combining the images with yield data from my combine helped to show the size of area and, to some extent, the amount of damage. I have also used UAS for crop insurance purposes, which is similar to animal damage. UAS help in the decision-making process by providing high-resolution, timely data.


On using UAS for scientific research…

Robbie Hood is an atmospheric scientist that has served as the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program office since 2008.

We asked Robbie Hood, going into this 2014 season, what she is particularly focused on with Hurricane Severe Storm Sentinel and what her your lessons learned so far were:

The Hurricane Severe Storm Sentinel is a NASA-led mission, but what we’re hoping to do with it is we’re hoping to follow behind them and take those lessons learned and say, “How would you apply that to operational weather forecasting?”

Next summer we’re hoping we’re going to go back out again with the Global Hawk, but it will be a NOAA-led mission. We’re calling that experiment Sensing Hazards With Operational Unmanned Technology, or SHOUT.

The emphasis of HS3 has been on improving understanding of hurricane development and genesis and intensity changes. It’s a research experiment. The scientists are all focused on getting data to improve their understanding of those processes. What we’re going to be stepping in and saying is, well, there are some really good instruments here that can probably help our weather forecast models right now. So let’s look at how would we fly missions differently if they were focused on weather forecasting as opposed to research. We might fly in different regions.

The SHOUT experiment is not just hurricanes though. Next year we’re focusing on hurricanes, because we’re picking up the baton from NASA. But we’re also going to be looking at storms in the Pacific, at sea and in Alaska, so storms that are really far out over the ocean now that we can’t quite get to, and can we improve weather forecasting in the three- to seven-day range so we can get a much more accurate forecast than you do now?


Jack Langelaan is an associate professor in the Aerospace Engineering Department at Penn State and works with the university’s Air Vehicle Intelligence and Autonomy Laboratory. His work focuses on improving performance in unmanned aircraft. His team also won the 2011 NASA Green Flight Challenge.

We asked Jack, who is pursuing new and diverse uses for UAS, what he’s currently working on and what he’s trying to find:

One of our main goals is extending range and endurance for small robotic aircraft. For us, “small” means that the aircraft can be hand launched, and this has some major effects on the aircraft. First, payload is limited, so there is a trade-off between the amount of sensors that can be carried and the amount of batteries that can be carried. The aircraft can carry a small, lightweight sensor package and more batteries so it can fly a bit longer but at reduced sensing capability, or it can carry a somewhat larger, heavier sensor package and a smaller battery, increasing sensing capability but reducing flight time. Second, the aerodynamic efficiency of small aircraft is quite a bit worse than larger aircraft. Since the Reynolds number is lower (Reynolds number is a parameter that describes the ratio of inertial forces in a fluid to viscous forces), drag tends to be comparatively higher on small aircraft than on full-sized aircraft. The average flight time for aircraft with a six-foot wingspan is between one and one and a half hours, and we would like to extend that to all day. We could of course wait a few years for battery technology to improve, but with some good flight control and flight planning, we can improve performance now.

Birds like hawks and vultures are about the same size as many small robotic aircraft, and these birds have evolved methods to exploit the energy in the atmosphere. By doing so, they can fly many hours and hundreds of miles without flapping their wings, and we’re trying to do the same with small aircraft. Birds exploit thermals (columns of warm, rising air) and slope or ridge lift (where the wind is deflected upwards by hills and ridges). Human glider pilots exploit both of these and also soar in mountain waves. Some sea birds such as albatrosses are also able to exploit wind shear by dynamic soaring. We are working on enabling soaring flight for small UAS — essentially we’re developing biologically inspired methods of flight control to improve range and endurance of small unmanned aircraft.


Jeremy Mathis is a supervisory oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and is an affiliate professor at the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He has worked with NOAA using unmanned systems to collect data in the Gulf of Alaska related to the health of our oceans.

We asked Jeremy how unmanned systems are useful in studying oceanography, specifically studying ocean acidification in coastal regions this field, and what do unmanned systems offer over traditional data collection methods?

Unmanned systems allow us to collect high-resolution data that is not possible with a ship. Taking a ship out costs $40- to $50,000 a day to operate, and before you do any science you can see how quickly those costs can add up. You may only get a chance to go to a place one or two times a year, and you can only stay there for one day. The data become very synoptic and you can’t develop an understanding of the context of what’s going on at a location a month before or after you make ship-based observations. Now, if you consider a glider that only cost a few thousand dollars a day to operate, you can stay in one area for months at a time to really get a complete understudying of how a system changes over the course of a year or during a process that you are interested in, like ice breakup or a biological bloom. Unmanned vehicles are never going to replace ships, but they certainly allow us to collect more data in a very cost-effective way.


Brian Argrow is a professor in the Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, and cofounder of the university’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles. His research on UAS has attracted attention for gathering data on supercell storms.

We asked Brian about his work in the integration of UAS into the national airspace, and how, as UAS technology continues to develop, he foresees it being used by researchers in the future:

Future uses of UAS in the National Airspace System appear to be limited not by the imagination, but by the pace of policies and regulations that allow or prevent their use. The lack of the policies, rules, standards and regulations for routine access of UAS to the NAS remains the greatest limitation. One of my RECUV colleagues, with a wealth of experience in the telecommunications industry, likens the current opportunity to develop policies and rules favorable to the safe operation of UAS in the NAS to what has been witnessed for the telecommunications industry. We have an opportunity for the development of sensible policies and rules that will foster fair commercial development while ensuring public safety.

The primary challenge is to educate politicians, agencies and UAS experts on the current regulatory environment so that sensible regulatory progress can replace the sensational stories that are now coming at a pace of several per week. Hopefully, we will someday look back on the aftermath of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 with similar regard as we do for the legislation and rulemaking that have enabled the regulated emergence of cable, wireless and Internet services that have revolutionized all aspects of contemporary life.


Jeff Sloan is the current UAS project manager in the USGS National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office. He has worked for the U.S. government for more than 25 years for various agencies focusing on cartography.

We asked Jeff about USGS’ recently completed elk population survey and documentation of dinosaur tracks:

The USGS conducted two elk survey missions in April and May 2014, in Washington and California. The work in Washington was conducted in cooperation with Western Washington University and the work in California was conducted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California State Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. We really did not know if our UAS could be used for this type of work, given the current UAS platforms that we have and the resolution of the cameras that we have on board. Also, given the terrain and vegetation/tree cover, we assumed correctly that it would be difficult to randomly locate elk in large area expanses, given the current lower altitude limits that we are allowed to fly (below 400 ft) and in the type of terrain and tree cover that we were working.

We were not successful in locating the elk in Washington; however, we did find them in California, as they were in more open meadow areas with smaller vegetative cover. The fish and wildlife personnel were optimistic in its potential use, especially if the UAS could be guided to collared or radio-tagged animals. Then surveys of the accompanying herds could possibly be more effective. Nevertheless, the two different project locations did show us both the limits and the potential to use the technology for this type of work.

The use of UAS for dinosaur tracks was highly successful. This was a project the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service had in place, with some additional USGS assistance, that took place in White Sands National Park near Las Cruces, New Mexico in January 2014. The BLM has been doing dinosaur track work using close range photogrammetric techniques for over more than 30 years in an attempt to record and model extremely accurate 3D measurements of the tracks that can be archived into a historical database.

In cases such as the tracks located in the White Sands National Park, they are uncovered – sometimes only for a brief period of time – as the sand is blown off to reveal the prints. The use of small UAS to quickly be deployed over known areas, or sometimes into unknown areas where prints may exist, proved to be highly effective. UAS are able to control the image collection better than balloons, are more versatile, can collect images from a higher altitude and cover large areas faster than with a tripod camera. With the advent of the ‘computer vision’ modeling techniques, the photogrammetric software coupled with the overlapping stereo images collected from the small UAS make this a very effective system for collecting this type of close-range data.


Marty Rogers is the director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Last year, the center was named an FAA UAS Test Site and recently was cleared by the FAA to begin flights. Rogers is retired from the U.S. Air Force.

We asked Marty, beyond the fact the Arctic is a region of extremes where conducting work and research is often difficult, what makes Alaska a unique test site:

Alaska, along with our test site partners Oregon and Hawaii offer a huge diversity in climate and geography. It’s not just hype; flying in Alaska can be a genuine challenge due to climate extremes. This tests not just equipment capabilities, but tests pilots, observers and researchers.

We have designed a multi-rotor UAS in house that is specifically designed for high-latitude operation. Last year a manufacturer of a UAS from the lower 48 came to Alaska for a research project, and the system would not operate because the outside temperature was -10 F. We fly at temps down to -30 F, and this requires equipment that is designed and built for extreme conditions. Because of the increased emphasis on the Arctic, from oil and gas exploration, environmental and wildlife management, and sovereignty concerns, UAS can be a logical tool for more efficient and safer research. But there can never be any confusion regarding where you are flying, and in the Arctic that reach-back for needed resources may be a very long way away.



Thomas Snitch is visiting professor at UMIACS and chairman of the Board of Visitors of the College of Computing, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland, CEO and co-founder of GeoQuera, as well as president of Little Falls Associates, an international consulting firm. His research focuses on use mathematic models to use UAS and satellite imagery to combat poaching of endangered species in Africa and Asia. Last year, he and his team put their research to use in South Africa, flying a UAS over a game reserve in South Africa to help protect rhinos.

We asked Thomas about flying UAS in foreign countries and the coordination with various agencies and governments needed to make it work:

Just as in the U.S., foreign nations have rules and they must be followed or the consequences can be very ugly. In South Africa, we had a local partner, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and they were instrumental in helping us with the paperwork to import the UAS into the nation. We had to apply to the Civil Aviation Authority to give us permission to fly in the South African skies and we had to speak with the South African Air Force because they have a base very near to where we were planning to fly.

The key is to have a good local partner who knows the local laws and regulations. You must start the process very early on because the delays can be lengthy. If you fail to follow local rules and regulations, you may end up in prison in a foreign land.

My advice is quite simple – do it right the first time. No shortcuts. No lies. No trying to sneak UAS into a foreign nation. Play by the rules.


Todd Jacobs is a project scientist on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration OAR Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program and the Deputy Superintendent for Operations and Administration of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. He and his team have used UAS to survey wildlife in California and the Olympic Coast of Washington. They have also conducted experiments on monitoring debris on the Olympic Coast of Washington and in Hawaii.

We asked Todd about what drew him to NOAA’s program and what the most interesting part of its evolution over these last 10 years has been:

What originally drew me to the UAS work was the potential for UAS to allow us to harness new and exciting technology that could potentially change the way we collect data in remote areas. The genesis of the NOAA UAS Program was a demonstration project in 2004 – 2005 that partnered the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. We were to fly a NOAA-centric payload on ALTAIR, a pre-production MQ-9 Predator B, with a unique wingset. That Predator allowed Altair to operate at higher altitudes than production Predator B UAS. Initially, my role in the project was to represent my division of NOAA and justify the requirements for certain components of the payload to be integrated as well as contributing to the planning of the mission.

The most interesting and challenging parts of what has evolved to become the NOAA UAS Program has been the continuum from “concept” and demonstration, to performing successful missions on the Global Hawk and Puma AE platforms, some of which are on the verge of becoming regular, recurring, routine operations. The most personally satisfying accomplishment for me was the acquisition of our initial two AeroVironment Puma AE DDL UAS systems. This was the culmination of work that included the developing and vetting of requirements for, plus testing, analysis, and documentation of and justification for NOAA’s ship-based UAS operations. What I find really cool about what we are doing is that we are harnessing and repurposing technologies that were originally developed for military purposes and using them for environmental work.