Posted on July 26, 2012 at 6:55 PM
HAYS COUNTY, Texas -- A group of researchers at Texas State University are taking remote-controlled airplanes to the next level.
It isn't your ordinary remote-controlled model airplane. It's a survey drone operated by researchers at Texas State University's River Systems Institute.
The drone is light enough to be held. It's battery-powered and equipped with two cameras and a GPS, for mission tracking and recovery in case it crashes.
Painted yellow and red and nicknamed "Ronnie" after a fast food restaurant character, the drone has many missions. It can survey wetlands, wildlife management areas and monitor the health of rivers, plants and animals.
Thomas Hardy is the chief science officer for Texas State University’s River Systems Institute and oversees the drone program. "Regular aircraft or fixed-wing (aircraft) are relatively expensive, and you also have the issue of safety with a pilot and observer in the aircraft," he said.
Like all pilots, Hardy and his team must let the FAA know when they plan to fly. The drone doesn't fly over urban areas because of privacy concerns.
Despite its size, it can reach a top speed of 85 miles an hour. It can soar as high as 1,000 feet. For a demonstration a KVUE crew witnessed, it flew around 60 miles an hour, more than 270 feet in the air.
Kristy Kollaus monitors the drone's track, speed, and altitude. "I think it's a great opportunity for us, because, you know, we are biologists, but then being able to take some of this technology and utilize it to enhance the research - it's a great opportunity," she said.
On the demonstration day, it was windy. The drone took off without incident, but during the flight the team heard something go wrong.
Airplanes like to take off into the wind, but there can be too much of a good thing. In this case, the wind gust was too strong, and it basically snapped the inside spar of the plane, breaking the plane's back.
It sounded serious, but it wasn’t. The drone was quickly repaired.
James Tennant, the chief pilot, loves his job. "This is not the worst job I've ever had. I worked in a fish cannery in Alaska, so that was pretty much the bottom end, and this one ranks really close to the top."
For the researchers from Texas State University, their drone is a key weapon in the fight to help save the fragile Texas ecosystem.