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Go fly yourself: Unmanned aircraft technology puts twist on self-flight

By Layer 8 on Tue, 01/27/09 - 10:57am.

Researchers at Purdue will soon experiment with an unmanned aircraft that pretty much flies itself with little human intervention.

The aircraft will use a combination of global-positioning system technology and a guidance system called AttoPilot that uses GPS signals and an on-board flight-stabilization system to guide the aerial vehicle to predetermined points. Researchers can be stationed off-site to monitor the aircraft and control its movements remotely. AttoPilot was installed in the aircraft early this year, and testing will begin in the spring, researchers said.

According to Purdue, researchers have been using a small, lightweight unmanned  aircraft - essentially a model airplane equipped with electronics - to collect agricultural data for Calmar Labs in Remington, Ind. The vehicle is equipped with infrared and digital cameras to take photos to assess the effects of shadowing on corn growth or to monitor the effects of drought or floods on crops.  Until now, the aircraft has been controlled by a conventional radio receiver, which required human intervention to begin and end the missions, Purdue stated.

"Their light weight and ability to fly at low altitudes also give them a considerable advantage over satellites," said Michael Leasure, an assistant professor of aviation technology at Purdue. "An unmanned aerial vehicle can be deployed almost immediately, and data can be collected within a half-hour. That readiness is important when information is needed within a short period of time."

Additional uses could include large-event surveillance, crowd and traffic control, detection of marijuana plant growth and volcanic hotspots, and locating people in hostage situations or in other crimes.

Leasure said that in addition to performing work for Calmar, the Department of Aviation Technology would like to establish an unmanned aviation vehicle test facility that would study durability and functionality issues, efficiency and regulatory compliance issues for operations within the national airspace system, and examine potential commercial applications for the aircraft. The test facility would be part of the proposed Aviation Innovation Laboratory, set to open in fall 2009, he said.

Such lab work is a priority as a ton of work needs to be done by military, federal and civil aviation groups if the rapidly growing unmanned aircraft community is allowed routine access to public airspace.   

Last Fall congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office called on Congress to create an overarching body within Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate unmanned aircraft development and integration efforts.

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