Texas State is among the 63 entities the Federal Aviation Administration recently approved to fly drones in U.S. airspace.
The River Systems Institute at Texas State is conducting unmanned aviation research under a $260,000 two-year grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Thom Hardy, research professor at the River Systems Institute, said the university is using the grant to evaluate the use of drones as a potential cost-saving and safer alternative to manned flight operations.
“It’s a doorway to research that relies upon remote sensing, but it’s much cheaper and we don’t have the risk of pilot and observer in the plane,” Hardy said.
The drone is a battery-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is 7 feet wide and weighs 8 pounds, can fly as fast as 60 miles per hour and is equipped with GPS, batteries and digital cameras.
James Tennant, chief UAV pilot at the River Systems Institute, is a prior Air Force guidance and control specialist and flies the drone aircraft.
“Sometimes it’s a bit nerve racking because the airplane is very small, and when you have a small airplane it’s highly affected by winds and other environmental factors,” Tennant said.
One year into the grant, Hardy and his crew have used the drone to track bird habitats in Galveston Bay and the growth of invasive tamarisk, a salt cedar plant, on Texas rivers, among other research.
“Our primary focus is on natural resource, land use, conversation and stewardship,” Hardy said.
Hardy said although the majority of their work has been for Texas Parks and Wildlife, the team is also starting to branch out and monitor canal systems for water companies.
Hardy said Texas State’s focus in its drone research is different from that of other universities in its orientation for natural resources management. Additionally, other universities’ programs are operating under $250,000 to $500,000 platforms. Texas State’s are designed and built with “off the shelf technology” that one could purchase at an electronics or hobby store for $30,000 to $50,000.
Along with Texas State, universities such as Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and the A&M Texas Engineering Experiment Station in College Station are also using drone technology for research purposes.
Stacey Lyle, research scientist at A&M-Corpus Christi, said the school’s research focuses on precise positioning of centimeter level, real time GPS positioning in combination with sensor data collection to know the location and data of the aircraft.
Lyle said A&M-Corpus Christi has two aircrafts. One is used to map coastal areas and shorelines, and the second runs on software that allows a cell phone attached to the drone to send images to a website to be used by wildlife managers and land surveyors.
Lyle said as more institutions use drones they will be able to collaborate, and looks forward to the Texas State program succeeding in its research.