CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has scheduled test flights for the week of June 1 from the Port Mansfield airport through the university’s Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center.
A launch in the dark and shoreline flights that match on-the-ground surveying are planned for this round of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), or drone, flights.
The missions will fly at altitudes up to 3,000 feet and over a distance of 18 miles. The RPA, an RS-16, is the university’s largest RPA, with a wingspan of nearly 13 feet and a maximum weight of 85 pounds. It launches with a pneumatic catapult and lands on its belly.
On Thursday, if conditions allow, the drone will fly over the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna Madre, while Dr. Paul Zimba, Director of the Center for Coastal Studies at A&M-Corpus Christi, and his crew will be at the water’s edge to see how drone-collected imagery compares with shoreline surveys traditionally used to determine property lines. This research seeks to further define a hot topic in Texas, determining the exact line between private and state land in property disputes.
Using RPA data can expand the scope of what his crew of five is able to do.
“We could map 18 miles of the beach using the RPA,” he said. “We couldn’t do that on the ground without an army of 10 crews working simultaneously!”
Zimba’s crew will visually inspect the algae lines and take biological samples to determine if there are specific algae that can be used to indicate the high water line, a key marker in figuring the property line. The drone will capture images of the same area, and a larger area, allowing Zimba to see if that data is equally as accurate as a ground survey.
Students from the Geographic Information Science and Geospatial Surveying Engineering Program also plan to take measurements along the Gulf shoreline and of the dune height for comparison with aerial data collected from the RS-16.
The week’s mission may also include an early morning launch in the dark Tuesday, if conditions allow, said Dr. David Bridges, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the University’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Program. This flight would use an infrared camera, and test how drones could be ideal for wildlife inventory, monitoring populations that are more active at night, such as ocelots, an endangered species with fewer than 130 individuals in Texas.
“The capabilities of UAS are particularly relevant with hurricane season upon us. Imagine being able to send a swarm of UAVs to map a coastal community hours before an approaching storm and immediately after impact,” said Dr. Michael Starek, Assistant Professor of Geospatial Surveying Engineering. “We could rapidly assess damages to guide rescue and repair efforts, even allowing crews to be sent right away as opposed to hours or days delay. In hurricane response scenarios where time is of the essence, this is critical information to help mitigate loss of life and property.”
The Lone Star UAS Center will report the results of the latest tests to the FAA as part of its duties as a federal test site. The tests are designed to safely integrate RPA into the national airspace, including air traffic control and communications, developing protocols for dealing with runways in use by piloted craft and ensuring air traffic control communications between the RPA and Mission Control Center.