Flying unmanned helicopters for science in Michigan

Aug 14, 2014

You might’ve heard that Amazon is hoping to one day deliver packages to your door by little unmanned helicopters.

Now, scientists are getting into the act, too.

“This is our unmanned aerial vehicle; an electronically powered helicopter,” Benjamin Heumann says as he unpacks a 6-foot helicopter. We’re in the middle of a rare wetland called a prairie fen near Chelsea. Heumann directs the Center for Geographic Information Science at Central Michigan University.

“I’m a remote sensing scientist, so I collect and analyze imagery collected from the air or space,” he says.

Usually, scientists like Heumann use images from satellites or manned planes to study ecosystems. But he says this little helicopter lets them see a lot more, in much finer detail.

“With aerial photography, you’re looking at trees. With this sort of thing, we’re looking at flowers, individual flowers. So it really changes the type of analysis we can do,” Heumann says.

He attaches a digital camera and battery packs with industrial strength Velcro.

"Sparrows we win, goose we lose"

Heumann is the pilot. He’ll fly the helicopter with a remote control while his students, Rachel Hackett and John Gross, keep an eye out for anything that could collide with the helicopter.

“Birds do generally stay away, luckily. When I did my training with the manufacturer, the joke was: sparrows we win, goose we lose. But we do keep an eye on the birds because they could come close to it but usually we’re looking for manned aircraft," he says.

This helicopter has a price tag of $70,000, so you kind of want to avoid a crash.

The team does a pre-flight check. And then they call the FAA.

"Yes, I'm calling to notify you about unmanned aero-systems activity," Heumann says over the phone. The FAA clears him for takeoff.

The chopper looks like a giant dragonfly when it’s in the air. It buzzes around above us as Heumann tells it where to go. It takes a photo once every second during the 15-minute flight.

The team does two flights and that’s it for their field day.

More information in less time

Normally, Rachel Hackett would spend a couple days surveying these plants. But she’s not worried remote control helicopters will put her out of a job.

“You definitely need people on the ground to be able to identify the species, because there’s a lot of species that look very similar; (like) a lot of the asters which are one of the dominant families in prairie fens,” she says.

This is the first summer the helicopter’s in the air. They’re also testing it out at Wilderness State Park in northern Michigan and on a farm near Mt. Pleasant.

Heumann says there are not a lot of groups using UAVs for science yet. But he says Michigan State University is using them, and so is the University of Florida.

“So instead of going out and wrestling an alligator and trying to measure how long it is, they take a picture and say, there’s a 10-foot alligator!” he says.

Barriers to using the sky for science

He adds that there are a lot of researchers who’d like to use unmanned aerial vehicles. But he says federal rules are tight, there are piles of paperwork, and sometimes people worry about privacy.

“We only fly on public lands or with permission of the private landowner. It’s quite different than the paparazzi who are using little quad copters to look in people’s bedroom windows. I don’t think you could use this — our airframe — for that, it’s a little loud and it’d be kind of noticeable,” he says with a laugh.

Heumann says the work they’re doing right now is a proof of concept. He hopes to eventually get involved in some big projects that are monitoring the health of the Great Lakes.