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War Games

Slingshot drone fleet targets US heartland

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    A new fleet of low-cost Styrofoam drones is among a growing group of UAVs intended for American skies. Austin Jensen (far right), lead pilot and research engineer with the Utah Water Research Laboratory, makes a final check with team members prior to launch. (Utah Water Research Lab)

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    The AggieAir fleet is meant to quickly and efficiently gather overhead imagery on constantly changing terrain; different flows within the year can completely change the dynamics of a river, for example. Seen here, a high-water situation in Utah. (Utah Water Research Lab)

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    Here, the same Utah river during a low-water situation. The AggieAir fleet is meant to quickly and efficiently gather overhead imagery on constantly changing terrain; different flows within the year can completely change the dynamics of a river. (Utah Water Research Lab)

A new fleet of model-airplane sized unmanned drones that can be launched from a slingshot on a moment’s notice are among the first wave in the massive rollout of commercial robot planes currently underway into U.S. skies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have become synonymous with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thanks to powerful spy planes and fighters with names like Raptor and Predator. The AggieAir Flying Circus are environmental crusaders instead, deployed to prevent water shortages and solve water resource challenges in Utah.

“[It’s an] on-demand fleet of UAVs that could be put in the sky at a moment’s notice,” explained Mac McKee, director of the Utah Water Research Lab at Utah State University that created the Flying Circus.

Water is a key resource in the state, where approximately 85 percent is diverted toward irrigating agriculture -- meaning the rest of the economy relies on the remaining 15 percent. But satellite images weren’t providing adequate aerial imagery to let the lab effectively study wetlands and agriculture.

The drones have made the water delivery system far more efficient by better anticipating demand, freeing up a huge volume for Utah’s economy and citizens.

On February 3, the House of Representatives passed a bill that will lead to a dramatic increase in the number of drones permitted to fly in US airspace. As restrictions ease, UAVs have been the subject of considerable debate; the Wall Street Journal wrote Thursday that more than 50 universities and law-enforcement agencies have been granted approval to operate them, according to Freedom of Information Act requests by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

'[It’s an] on-demand fleet of UAVs that could be put in the sky at a moment’s notice.'

- Mac McKee, director of the Utah Water Research Lab

The AggieAir Flying Circus is one such group, a team of researchers, developers, navigators and UAV pilots at USU who obtaining authorization from the FAA to fly UAVs domestically. (The fleet does not fly in populated areas or near airports.)

Standard data collection services can be costly, and satellite imagery poses geographic and temporal issues; satellites aren’t overhead every day and can’t always provide the scale required.

The Flying Circus fleet inexpensively gathers high-resolution images over wide expanses to paint a picture that experts can use to address a wide range of natural and water resources problems.

The “flying egg cartons,” as McKee describes them, have 72-inch wingspan, Styrofoam bodies and weigh a total of eight pounds. They operate on a combination of slingshot and battery and carry a payload of two cameras, two on board computers and GPS.  Each camera takes approximately 400 images an hour yielding about 1200 images per flight.

Each UAV can reach 1,000 feet, last about an hour, and cover a total of about three to four square miles, producing photos that are “geo-referenced,” or located on map coordinates.


WHO'S WATCHING? Over 50 universities and law enforcement organizations have sought permission to use drones, according to the Wall Street Journal. Here are just a few: 

City of Houston Police Department
Cornell University
Department of Agriculture - US Forest Service
Eastern Gateway Community College
Georgia Tech Police Department, Office of Emergency Preparedness
Mesa County (Colo.) Sheriff's Office
Miami-Dade Police Department
Mississippi State University
Seattle Police Department
Texas State University
Washington State Department of Transportation

For a complete list, see the Wall Street Journal

Each of the half dozen aircraft in service has a name drawn from illustrious planes of the past such as “Raven,” “Spitfire” and “Mustang,” and each has its own unique color scheme painted so that the operator can confirm that the aircraft is right side up.

The UAVs are launched like a slingshot using a 100-foot bungee cord: The pilot ties the bungee to a stake in the ground, gets the proper tension and hooks the bungee to the aircraft before lofting it into the skies.

When the UAV detects it is at the right height and distance, the onboard computer arms the camera and the plane follows a pre-programmed flight path.

One computer flies it and another communicates with the camera. Together they identify both the location and orientation of the aircraft and coordinate this data with each image taken.

Flight begins smoothly but ends with a crash landing -- hardly a problem for the rugged and economical Styrofoam body.

While other UAVs designed for the homeland cost as much as $150,000 per aircraft, the AggieAir fleet are under $10,000 apiece. And more are on the way.

This summer the team will deploy three new platforms including a UAV with a rotary design that will allow vertical takeoff and landing.

“Titan” will be larger, with an 11-foot wingspan and a 20 to 25 pound mass when fully loaded. The researchers expect it to have about 80 minutes of endurance. “Minion” a smaller aircraft, will address a fresh, yet undetermined target.

The team has been experimenting with balsam, Styrofoam and even Kevlar in both the skid plate and the wing design.

Will we see fleets of weaponized drones in U.S. skies in the near future? It’s unlikely, but as the Flying Circus clearly demonstrates, UAVs have enormous potential well beyond the defense space.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.