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Virginia Tech eBee unmanned aircraft has endless applications for lands management

June 1, 2016

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Professor John McGee, right, discusses the unmanned aircraft flight with Robert Stieg, CEO of the Clermont Foundation, which operates the Clermont Farm property. The aircraft was operated by Daniel Cross, an employee of Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute who is a licensed pilot, in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration safety regulations and other guidelines.

Virginia Tech has another tool in its arsenal for managing land resources, from inventorying forests and identifying land-use changes to assessing soil erosion and water runoff on agriculture lands. A small 1.5-pound unmanned aircraft, commonly called a drone, showcased its potential to collect data in early May, flying over Clermont Farm in Clarke County.

“Our unmanned aircraft, a fixed wing eBee, flew about 350 feet above Clermont Farm, a site that is a Virginia Department of Historic Resources operating farm,” said John McGee, professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension geospatial specialist in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

The unmanned aircraft’s sensors gathered information that will support future projects by supplying researchers with information about this cultural landscape.

The eBee’s payload carried two different sensors — true color and infrared — that gathered land-use and land-cover data to support inventory mapping. Using data collected by these sensors and other sources, researchers hope to identify objects, such as old foundations that may be hidden beneath the surface of the terrain, McGee said.

The eBee’s sensors captured data that will enable project leaders and researchers to measure vegetative vigor — places in which chlorophyll activity differs drastically across the terrain. If the ground vegetation is stressed in a confined area, it might indicate that there is a structure, perhaps a foundation, buried under the ground. The site has been a working farm since before 1750, so archaeologists do not want to disturb what might be a historically significant structure.

For example, one of the agriculture research projects, led by John Fike, an associate professor of crops, soils, and environmental sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is to create a silvopasture, in which trees, livestock, and forage areas share the same space. Silvopasture systems are designed and managed in ways that increase productivity on the land by producing both livestock and timber products.

“But before there can be plans for the silvopasture area, the historic aspects need to be safeguarded,” said Robert Stieg, CEO of the Clermont Foundation, which operates the farm. Native Americans likely lived there before Europeans settled in the region, and the property was surveyed by George Washington in 1750. Several universities, including James Madison University and the University of Virginia as well as Virginia Tech, have projects underway at the site, which is associated with the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

Using the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s unmanned aircraft capabilities for the archeological side of the project demonstrates an additional application of this data collection tool.

This unmanned aircraft is not just a small airplane; it is a complete and sophisticated system, comprised of flight planning software, camera and sensor technology, the eBee aircraft, and post-processing data software.

The eBee flies autonomously, under the direction of a licensed pilot. The aircraft operates on parameters provided through the flight planning software prior to launching. A smart plane, it continually assesses wind speed, wind direction, and other data. The pilot can also monitor environmental conditions and modify the flight plan and captured imagery while the plane is in flight.

Forestry applications for the unmanned aircraft include inventorying forests, identifying changes in urban forests, and monitoring forest health, while agricultural applications include assessing soil erosion, water runoff, and crop health. Facilities planners can analyze pedestrian traffic and lighting needs, plan for emergencies, and use thermal sensors to monitor energy use. The aircraft can also be utilized to conduct wildlife inventories.

“The college has been operating the eBee in Virginia and abroad over the past several months,” McGee explained. “A research team traveled to Panama and mapped 1,000 acres of rainforest to support the conservation of wildlife, including endangered species.”

Safety is paramount to the operation of this aircraft. Virginia Tech’s eBee pilots strictly adhere to Federal Aviation Administration safety regulations and other guidelines.

While at Clermont Farm, representatives of the Virginia Geospatial Extension Program and the Conservation Management Institute, both of which are based in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, provided demonstrations and presentations on the potential applications of unmanned aviation systems to several middle and high school groups. Students from Clarke County High School and Johnson-Williams Middle School who are associated with engineering, agriculture, robotic technology, and environmental science courses participated.

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