Land-Grant Universities at the Forefront of Unmanned-Aircraft Research and Testing

Drone flying over crop
Nation prepares to develop standards and protocols for widespread use

A 2012 Congressional mandate directed the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) to begin integrating civilian unmanned aircraft (aka drones) into the national airspace (NAS) by the end of 2015.

FAA regulates all flight through U.S. airspace. Until now, the agency has allowed only public entities with special FAA permits, called Certificates of Authorization (COAs) to fly unmanned aircraft, mostly for research purposes.

On December 30, FAA picked six test sites from among 25 competing proposals to develop information that will help the agency develop the regulatory and legal frameworks that will enable unmanned civilian aircraft to share the skies with conventional aircraft.

Among the chosen sites: the University of Alaska, Virginia Tech, and Texas A & M Corpus Christi. However, complex multi-institution partnerships in all six of the selected proposals should boost the number of land-grant universities directly involved in the program.

Aiming to minimize risks to privacy and security and maximize public safety, the test sites will develop data on vehicle airworthiness, reliability of ground-to-air communication links, crash-avoidance, and training for pilots, flight crews, mechanics, and others.

The promise of civilian unmanned aircraft
Equipped with geospatial guidance systems and outfitted with remote-sensing equipment, unmanned aircraft can conduct research and safely perform jobs in areas/situations too dangerous, polluted, or impenetrable for on-ground operations.

They can travel safely over or through mountains and swamps, through raging storms, and into radiation-polluted environments to collect essential data. They can effectively, rapidly, and inexpensively perform jobs that people find tedious and time-consuming, such as counting trees in large commercial nursery operations or checking the integrity of fences and pipelines.

Compared with UAVs used in military operations, most civilian UAVs are smaller, lighter, and far less expensive.

Their current and potential applications include firefighting, improved weather forecasting, non-invasive wildlife monitoring, infrastructure inspection, detecting patterns of coastal erosion, monitoring extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, search-and-rescue operations, disaster response, newsgathering, collecting soil and water samples, and monitoring the health of forests, crops, and waterbodies.

Unmanned aircraft are already used for border patrol and some law enforcement operations. Though controversial, law enforcement use of drones for public safety emergencies, surveillance, and crowd control is expected to grow.

What’s in a name?
The FAA defines an unmanned aircraft as “the flying portion of the system, flown by a pilot via a ground control system, or autonomously through use of an on-board computer, communication links and any additional equipment that is necessary for the UA to operate safely.”

In various communities over the years, unmanned aircraft have gone by a lot of different names: remotely piloted aircraft (RPV), remotely operated aircraft (ROA) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), and the inelegant but most common name, drone.

But preparing to integrate thousands of unmanned vehicles into the NAS, the main industry and government players have settled on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), a term that includes not just the aircraft itself, but also its sophisticated navigation, communications, and data-collection systems.

True UAS differ from remote-controlled hobby aircraft in that the UAS fly themselves, using onboard computers and pre-programmed routes.


Marty Rogers directs the University of Alaska’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, part of the university’s Geophysical Institute and headquarters of the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex.

The Alaska Center “is the largest and most comprehensive non-Department of Defense UAS research program in the nation,” says Rogers, adding that the Center has conducted UAS research for 13 years, and currently manages a fleet of more than 100 unmanned vehicles in eight different fixed- and rotary-wing configurations

“Our project includes 13 test ranges and 58 partners: three state universities, UAS manufacturers, various small organizations, various state and local government agencies, international partners, and a massive support network across the lower 48,” says Rogers.

The data collected from all six test sites during the testing phase “will be provided to the FAA as official data,” he adds. “It formalizes and recognizes the industry as a maturing technology and helps it move away from the ‘cowboy mentality’ of the past.

“Every emerging technology has its cowboys; without them we wouldn’t be here today. But inevitably the time comes when the cowboys are actually hurting what they once promoted.”

For his part, Rogers hopes the process of integrating civilian UAS technology into the NAS proceeds on schedule. He also says he’s “confident in the FAA’s commitment to the safe integration of the technology and its benefits. Rogers also added “Safety is number one–no excuses, no alternatives–safety is the number one job, and that’s the way it has to be. That is what is expected by the public, operators, users, clients, everyone–a safe system of integration.”

Big economic payoff
No monetary awards accompanied the The FAA test-site designations. So what’s in it for the winners?

Potentially enormous economic benefits.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), forecasts that between 2015 and 2025, civilian UAS will add $82.1 billion to the U.S. economy, along with 103,776 new, high-paying jobs that require technical degrees.

The lion’s share–$75.6 billion–will benefit the nation’s agricultural sector; $3.2 will support public safety, and the rest will be scattered in other industries.

“The test-site areas will likely become business incubators, as manufacturers and others flock to them for access to the testing ranges,” says Rogers. As for local universities and community colleges, research dollars and money will flow to them to expand or create new academic programs and train the new generation of engineers, pilots, software developers, and even journalists prepared to enter the lucrative UAS workforce.

The Cooperative Extension connection
It’s hard to find a land-grant university that doesn’t have faculty researchers and Extension staff involved (or eager for the a chance to get involved) with UAS.

Stephen Brown, an agriculture and natural resources agent for the Mat-Su and Copper River Districts of Alaska, came to the job with experience in precision agriculture and a PhD focused on geospatial technologies.

He was part of a team that helped recover debris scattered across north-central and eastern Texas after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.

A mountaineer, marathoner, and Iditarod musher, Brown owns four snowmobiles, each outfitted with different tools and equipment. He chuckles, “We’re probably the only Extension service in the nation that reimburses for snowmobile mileage.”

“UAVs would really improve the efficiency of the Extension system here,” Brown says. “I cover a huge and variable area the size of Georgia. I’d love to be able to dispatch a drone to a farm 100 miles from here to take and maybe even analyze a soil sample. Right now, it can take me three or four hours one way overland to fetch a single sample.”

Brown adds, “Some of our farmers don’t even know how much cropland they farm; it’s difficult to make an accurate fertilizer recommendation using estimates that can be way off. A UAV could easily and accurately measure a field.”

Brown envisions the day when small, energy-efficient, unmanned ground and aerial vehicles would combine to measure an area, test the soil, spread the right amount of fertilizer only where needed, plant seeds, monitor crop health, measure soil moisture and irrigate, and monitor for disease, insect pests, and weeds, dispensing pesticides only when and where needed. Indeed, that day that has already arrived for some farmers.

Since 2008, an interdisciplinary group of Extension collaborators from four land-grants–the Universities of Oregon, Florida, and Arkansas, and Virginia Tech–has expanded their research in ground-based precision agriculture to aerial operations.

The group includes specialists with expertise in horticulture, plant physiology, forestry, and biological/agricultural engineering, as well as several cooperating commercial nurseries. They’ve applied their research to citrus crops in Florida, ornamental nursery crops in Arkansas and Virginia, and Christmas-tree production in Oregon.

The first task they tackled: managing inventory. “We were all trying to answer the same question,” says Jim Robbins, Extension commercial ornamental horticulture specialist at the University of Arkansas. “How do we automate the process of counting plants in open-field situations?”

“For large operations, this requires humans to walk miles and miles, row after row, counting individual plants,” says Jim Owen, extension horticulture specialist at Virginia Tech’s Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “Other kinds of operations might be dealing with very rough terrain.”

“We were fortunate to collaborate with three engineers,” says Robbins. The engineers designed and built what they call an Autonomous Platform for Precision Agriculture (APPA) from off-the-shelf materials. The APPA combines low cost, vertical takeoff and landing, ability to hover, in-air stability, and ease of operator training.

“We’ve found that with aerial photography, we can look at a large acreage in minutes and monitor inventory with close to 100 percent accuracy,” says Owen. “This is quite a task, since a single nursery can contain hundreds of taxa (different classes of trees and shrubs).”

Members of the group have already moved on to using the APPA to monitor disease in citrus groves, estimate crop yields, and monitor nutrient and water stress.

“We’re very excited about the future of aerial operations,” says Owen. “But many questions remain when we ask what happens to the data as we go up in the air.”

Learn more
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)  Comprehensive information about the FAA’s plans to integrate UAS into the national airpspace.
Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS)  The FAA national roadmap.
Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the U.S.  Document includes state-level economic impact data for all states.
Privacy Concerns  A good summary.
Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act,  U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s bill, intended to codify essential privacy and transparency requirements within the FAA’s regulatory framework for domestic UAS and UAS test sites.
Flying hacker contraption hunts other drones, turns them into zombies  Article highlights concerns that UAS can be hacked/controlled by hackers.


Released January 29, 2014

Photo credit: James Robbins, University of Arkansas, taken at Woodburn Nursery and Azaleas, Woodburn, Oregon

Sources: Marty Rogers, University of Alaska,

Stephen Brown, University of Alaska,

Jim Robbins, University of Arkansas,

Jim Owen, Virginia Tech,

Writer: Peg Boyles, eXtension,