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Photos: A drone's view on research

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Pilot and mechanical engineer Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, engineered a 200-pound helicopter Kochersberger to fly autonomously — a drone.

His flight team is made up of mechanical engineering students Justin Stiltner of Grundy, Va., the ground station operator; safety pilot Kenneth Kroeger of Hunt Valley, Md., who is ready to “fly” the autonomous helicopter at the first sign of trouble; Donny Rogers of Winchester, Va., who programs in the navigation and payload information, and Gordon Christie of Morgantown, W.Va, who serves as an observer, continually scanning the area for hazards.

This test isn't happening at the familiar Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory, which serves as the base for the Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems, a research arm for the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and the College of Engineering. Kochersberger’s flight team is alone in the Roanoke River Valley, disconnected from power, except for a portable generator.

The team is working with David Reed, an Extension agronomist at the Virginia Tech Southern Piedmont Center in Blackstone, to determine whether unmanned drones can gather data useful for managing crops.

By building sensing systems, called payloads, to integrate into the autonomous helicopter, the researchers are perfecting technology that can be used to image for  symptoms of crop stress, deploy on search-and-rescue missions, or monitor blast areas and conservation sites.

The work could lead to a new industry. Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the national airspace could add more than $13.6 billion to the nation’s economy by the end of the decade, reaching as high as $82.1 billion by 2025, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The chopper rises and the autopilot activates. Infrared, long-wave infrared, and ultraviolet cameras whir to life.

Green in the aerial images represents growing plants and conveys information about crop health. Yellow provides information about when and where to harvest.

“I don’t always sleep well the night before a flight operation, especially one in a remote location with no power, but absolutely nothing went wrong,” Kochersberger said. “The helicopter started, the flight control system worked, we didn’t have wind issues, the batteries were charged when we started and still charged when we landed, the images were all taken, the exposures were all correct. All of the systems we rely on, every one, worked perfectly. That’s because our students are as good at unmanned flight operations as any team from any large corporation out there.”