Researchers design and build a low-cost remote sensing tool for environmental studies

Researchers design and build a low-cost remote sensing tool for environmental studies

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Manhattan, Kansas, USA, 10 May 2006 – A Kansas State University research team is prototyping a small, inexpensive remote-control plane as a sensing tool, also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle, to collect environmental data. The team plans to test it over the Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan this summer. If the sensing tool performs as the team hopes, it will be made available to climate scientists, who would then be able to reconstruct it to obtain high-resolution images and reliable data.

The development of the sensing tool is part of a three-year research instrumentation project that began in fall 2005 with a $597,000 National Science Foundation grant. According to the researchers, the sensing tool/unmanned aerial vehicle should be capable of “flying low and slow” just a few feet above the ground. The onboard payload of digital cameras, spectral radiometers and other remote sensing instruments will produce high-resolution images and data about small groups of plants and their environmental stress level.

At just 15 pounds with payload, the bantamweight hobby airframe with an 80-inch wingspan has been modified to house the remote sensing instruments in a carbon fiber-reinforced fuselage. A K-State graduate student designed and built an autopilot for first phases of the project. However, the researchers have opted for incorporating a commercially available autopilot so that the sensing tool can be reproduced easily by others.

According to researchers, the remote sensing tool will meet a need shared by thousands of environmental scientists worldwide. For just a few thousand dollars, researchers will have a way to collect data for small ecosystem sites at low altitudes and at very slow speeds. Until now, climate research has required costly, piloted airplanes and satellites for earth’s images and data, he said.