Science in the sky: Acquisition of unmanned vehicle to help with CMU wetland research


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For professor Benjamin Heumann, wetlands research would be a lot easier with a pair of eyes in the sky.

For him and a group consisting of professors, graduate students and undergraduates, Central Michigan University’s new, 6-foot long, unmanned helicopter will help them in ways they never thought possible.

Heumann, an assistant professor in the department of Geography and director of the Center for Geographic Information Science, will use the UAV for strictly noninvasive, nonintrusive purposes, such as studying different aspects of specific ecosystems.

The helicopter is outfitted with a hyperspectral camera, which is key to this type of research, Heumann said. The use of the UAV will also cut research costs significantly.

"If we were to hire an airplane with a hyperspectral camera to fly for us, for one mission would be about $100,000," Heumann said. "So it's very cost effective. Obviously, there are operational costs in terms of personnel, insurance and maintenance, but it gives us this great capacity to collect data where and when we want."

The $140,000 aircraft was paid for by the College of Science and Technology. Although the price is high, Heumann said it will quickly be worth the cost, allowing him to look at wetlands from a new angle.

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"The research I'm interested in, is looking at ecosystems and how they function," Heumann said. "Looking for invasive species, rare plants, and understanding the patterns and processes that go on within these ecosystems, how they function and threats to how they operate."

Beginning last June, university officials began preparing the multitudes of paperwork and planning to acquire the unmanned vehicle. Much of the work included fulfilling requirements set by the Federal Aviation Administration that allowed Heumann and others to just apply for the certification needed to legally fly the helicopter.

These certifications are typically given out to government agencies, Heumann said.

Fortunately, Heumann received the certificates of authorization and hopes to begin flying the helicopter in April or May.

A world illuminated by spectrometer

The camera, made by Headwall Photonics, takes high-resolution images from above, pointing things out that would have been overlooked from the ground.

"The helicopter is the platform for our hyperspectral camera, which measures the brightness reflected off the surface in 334 different colors," Heumann said. "That allows us to determine the types of plants and the characteristics about the plants in terms of the number of leaves on the plant, or the amount of chlorophyll in the leaf and things like that."

The vehicle can be flown both manually by using a remote control and controlled by a computer program. However, Heumann said he could take control in case problems were to arise during automated sequences.

John Gross, a graduate student working on the project with Heumann, said the helicopter will be ideal for accurately locating invasive species without destroying vegetation.

As part of Heumann's flight crew, Gross will make sure certain procedures are followed and will be responsible for monitoring the sky for planes, birds and other hazards during flight.

Anna Monfils, associate professor of biology and director of the CMU Herbarium, is working on the research efforts taking place on the ground.

Working with wetlands

Research will be done in one of the wetland areas of Michigan, located in Washtenaw County in the southeast part of the state. The area is home to a unique type of wetland called a prairie fen. The second pocket of prairie fens in Michigan is located in southwestern Michigan.

Monfils said these wetlands are rare and home to a vast array of species.

"They are one of the most speciose habitats in the whole temperate region," Monfils said. "We have two pockets of them in Michigan and the water that comes up through upwellings end up going into the tributaries of the Great Lakes."

Rachel Hackett is a graduate student from Mount Pleasant working with Monfils. She will help in surveying and collecting data on the biodiversity of the area among other research. Hackett received funding from the Nature Conservancy to do much of her work including her continued research of the prairie fens.

She is experienced on this kind of research after spending the last two summers doing research and is excited to begin again and help to make a difference.

"It is crucial to have the on the ground component," Hackett said. "We want to figure out what is starting this biodiversity and see if we can inform management and other research that can save the systems."

The nuts and bolts of CMU’s unmanned vehicle

The helicopter runs on six batteries that are charged after every flight. Flights usually last 15 to 20 minutes. Heumann said the length of time is enough to fully cover the area while following Federal Aviation Administration regulations, one of which requires an unmanned vehicle to remain in the line of sight.

The vehicle will be flown at 400 feet, another regulation from the FAA.

To learn how to fly the helicopter, Heumann had to go to the manufacturer, Leptron Industrial Robotic Helicopters, in Golden, Colo. He completed 40 hours of flight training during the summer months and made sure the helicopter worked as needed. The camera was also mounted to the helicopter while training to make sure it was still able to fly efficiently.

The use of unmanned vehicles in Michigan has been a hot topic for lawmakers in Lansing.

Heumann said nothing has passed yet in terms of legislation barring unmanned vehicle flight, but if a bill were passed, Kathleen Wilbur, vice president of development and external relations, and Toby Roth, director of federal programs, would work to make sure Heumann's research would not be affected.

"By legal definition, CMU is an entity of the state," Heumann said. "So what they are trying to do is try to help inform the legislatures about this distinction so if and when they write any laws, they do not prevent the activities we are doing, which do not have privacy concerns.”

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