OSU aims high with unmanned aircraft


By Rebecca Barrett

Above the tree canopy of the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest, a popular public recreation site north of Corvallis, researchers from Oregon State University are using a new tool to study and work in the forest.

Unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, are being tested for all kinds of forestry applications, including fighting wildfires, detecting disease, forest management, wildlife research, even search and rescue.

Michael Wing, an assistant professor in the College of Forestry, was one of the first people involved with the university’s push to bring drone research to OSU. Soon, unmanned helicopters will be counting trees, measuring height and determining volume in board feet, replacing manual calculations that have been the industry standard for decades.

“That day is not far away,” Wing said.

Wing was one of three OSU faculty members who wrote the research objectives in a successful bid to the Federal Aviation Administration to develop practical applications for unmanned aircraft. An Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii collaboration was approved by the FAA in December as one of six test sites nationwide to integrate the use of drones into the nation’s airspace.

Already efforts have netted the university $900,000 in funding from the state Legislature to develop an unmanned aerial systems center in Bend. And Oregon State is part of a 13-university team that in April will be applying to become an FAA Center of Excellence for unmanned aircraft systems, which could bring even more research funding to the university.

“It’s starting to feel like we’re getting to an area where people are starting to notice us,” said Wing.

Many uses for drones

After registering with the FAA to sponsor approved drone flights two years ago, Wing has been involved in more than a dozen flights, and more are scheduled this spring and summer. Unmanned aircraft will be used during controlled burns at McDonald-Dunn, and on the Warm Springs Reservation to monitor 1.6 million acres of the Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon.

Forestry is just one of many industries where OSU is looking to develop the uses of unmanned aircraft.

Rick Spinrad, vice president for research at OSU, said the major development in Oregon right now is with precision agriculture, using unmanned aircraft to monitor and tend to crops.

OSU researchers are also using drones to map the coastline and study how beaches respond to environmental changes.

Practical implications

Professor emeritus Rob Holman in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, has been studying the ocean nearshore, an area roughly 10 meters or less from the ocean’s edge, since the 1980s.

Holman has been using overhead photography to map the beaches and document the changes caused by environmental stresses. With so many people living in coastal communities, it’s important for planning and land management.

“The more we know, the better equipped we are to make informed decisions,” Holman said.

Previously, he installed a system of cameras on top of coastal buildings to monitor the beaches. He always thought unmanned aircraft technology had the potential to be used in his line of work. Now that the FAA allows drone flights within the test site, it’s become a reality.

“That gives us a license to address the problems that have kept us from exploring how unmanned aircraft can be used,” Holman said. “Everything is happening very rapidly now.“

OSU is well-positioned to be a leader in developing the uses for unmanned aircraft.

“It’s a very exciting time,” Holman said.

Sky’s the limit

In the vast fields of northeastern Oregon, agriculture is done on a scale of hundreds and even thousands of acres. Farmers have used overhead photography in the Columbia Basin for the past 20 years to monitor their crops, said Phil Hamm, an Extension plant pathologist at the Hermiston Agricultural Research Station.

An airplane flying at 7,000 feet could produce an 8-inch by 10-inch picture with poor resolution. With unmanned aircraft systems, they are getting much more information, Hamm said.

“UAVs can take pictures at a much lower elevation, 400 feet,” he said. “They give you the resolution to see individual potato leaves so you can see what the problem is.”

The vehicles themselves are not that expensive, and are easy to fly. Coming up with a system to interpret the data is what Hamm and his research team are working on. They are developing cameras to capture different wavelengths of light, rather than straight color or infrared, and systems to interpret the data.

“My job is to provide research-based information on how to use this new technology; to use UAVs to save money, or how they can be used for pesticides, fertility aspects, or increase yields,” Hamm said.

Based on the flood of international media coverage his work garnered last year, Hamm said that Oregon State is getting lots of attention for developing this technology.

What makes OSU’s approach unique is the collaboration between researchers, industry, government and economic development entities.

“What we’re doing right now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hamm said. “The sky is the limit in what this technology might allow us to do in the future.”


Here are facts about the development of unmanned aircraft systems (also known as drones) at Oregon State University:

• Unmanned aircraft will be used during controlled burns this summer at McDonald-Dunn Research Forest, and on the Warm Springs Reservation to monitor 1.6 million acres of the Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon.

• The technology could offer breakthroughs for agriculture, as unmanned aircraft can be used to monitor and tend to crops.

• The technology also could be used to provide overhead photography to map the beaches and document the changes to areas near the ocean shore caused by environmental stresses. That could be a useful tool for planning and land management in coastal communities.

• The vehicles themselves are not that expensive, and are relatively easy to fly.