By Jack Barnwell
INYOKERN — Inyokern Airport’s California Unmanned Aircraft Systems Portal team snagged an opportunity to brief the United States Department of Agriculture’s top person in California on Thursday.
Dr. Glenda Humiston, state director for the USDA, and a group of panelists from a recent economic development conference found themselves bombarded by information presented to them by Eileen Shibley, head of the Cal UAS team.
Shibley dove into presentation after presentation, highlighting the advantages of both Inyokern as a possible test site for a Federal Aviation Administration-designated UAS test and research site. She also spoke about what unmanned aircraft could do for the state’s agriculture area.
“We have the opportunity to become a mecca for unmanned systems,” Shibley said.
The FAA is on track to select six test sites across the U.S. The test sites will help integrate commercial unmanned systems into the National Airspace System by 2015.
“We think agriculture will be one of the first industries to benefit from this technology,” Shibley said. “We can see Inyokern as a kind of turnkey manufacturer where agriculture people in the Central Valley have an interest in this technology but don’t want to own them.”
With an emerging industry that could pave the way for the generation of $81 billion and more than 100,000 jobs over the course of a decade between 2015 and 2025, Shibley said California was ground zero to reap the most benefit if a test site is selected in the state.
She added that Inyokern was a logical choice because of its location in the middle of a black hole of aircraft, with Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake’s proximity to the area.
Humiston fired off a series of questions, including Inyokern’s proximity to Edwards Air Force Base, and whether activity there would affect Inyokern’s efforts.
“We don’t think it will be a negative at all, but it is a matter of us being good neighbors in sharing the airspace, so it means increased communication,” Shibley said.
She added that aside from 327 permits granted by the FAA to use UAVs for certain things, no concrete set of rules exist to govern how UAVs are used.
Humiston asked what competition Inyokern or California faced among the 25 applicants vying for a test site, as well as whether those areas were near rural areas.
“One of the things we do at the USDA when talking with any agency is that we try to scream and holler that some of these programs need to be rural,” Humiston said.
Following the briefing, Cal UAS team members provided a UAV demonstration for Humiston.
Jeff Parisse and Scott Brown from Parisse Aviation provided background of how both fixed-wing and multi-rotor UAVs could benefit farmers and agricultural industries, including surveillance and crop dusting. Brown said where it took days with a manned aircraft to survey fields for diseased or stressed crops, UAVs could do it in a fraction of the time at a fraction of the cost.
“When you get images from surveillance back, you can create one large map and see what areas need attention,” Brown said. “A farmer can look at this and it allow him to apply pesticide to a small area, instead of spraying the whole field.”
Brown added that larger crops, like wheat fields, benefit more from fixed-wing UAVs, while smaller farms might utilize multi-rotor machines.
Parisse added that some of the more advanced UAVs use a number of systems, including infrared and video to monitor or spray crops.
Parisse said added that some multi-rotor UAVs were great for fire suppression and detection of hotspots in forest fires.
The bottom line of utilizing the machines, Parisse said, is cost.
“Modern aviation can do the job, but not often enough and cost effective enough,” Parisse said. “The key to UAS technology is going over a field so many more times than a manned airplane could.”
During the flight of a multi-rotor machine, Brown piloted a device via a remote control and 3D-simulated goggles, while people watched on a screen. Software allowed the UAV to automatically stabilize if it found itself thrown off balance by wind, Parisse said.
The cost of a setup like Parisse Aviation’s: $5,000.
Parisse said those aimed at smaller farmers could cost much less and would be less complex.
“The systems we are building for farms can be thrown like a football. Drink your coffee and 20 minutes later it lands at your feet,” Parisse said.
Following the presentation, Humiston, the USDA state director, called the technology exciting.
Humiston added that California was poised to benefit from the technology.
“As you look at Inyokern Airport, the region it is located in, and consider our technology, infrastructure and university systems, California is the place to develop this technology,” Humiston said.