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Science

K-State Salina Program Tests The Boundaries Of Drone Use

This story originally aired during Morning Edition on 04/20/15.

At Kansas State University’s campus in Salina, aviation is a big deal. Students can learn how to fly planes and helicopters, or how to manage an airport. They can also study unmanned aircraft, often called drones. 

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems program at the college tests the boundaries of drone use. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur visited their facilities and has this report.

The Salina campus is a bit rough on the outside, but impressive on the inside. A number of weather-beaten hangars and unassuming buildings house the latest in aviation technology, including drones.

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Credit Sean Sandefur
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UAS Pilot Travis Balthazor (left) and Flight Operations Manager Kurt Carraway

“We’re at the unmanned aircraft systems lab, Salina, Kansas,” Travis Balthazor says.

Balthazor pilots these drones. He stands in a large room filled with them. Some resemble planes, made with Styrofoam and flimsy plastic. Others are military grade—big, metal and painted a flat grey. 

“We have a lot of different aircraft," he says. "We do operations research, from agriculture all the way through industrial inspection.”

Kurt Carraway, the flight operations manager, is also here to show off these machines. He spent 25 years in the Air Force, where he first learned to pilot unmanned aircraft.

To the outsider, flying drones might seem like a lot of fun. Carraway says they’d be right.

“It's a great opportunity to have fun trying to push the envelope, per se, to figure out various types of applications that you can use to make things better,” Carraway says.

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KMUW/File Photo
A multi-rotor drone suspended in air at Kansas State Salina's Unmanned Aircraft Systems lab. This drone, together with its camera, retails for about $3,500

That’s the mission here—finding practical uses for these drones. The program was born out of the need to survey widespread damage after natural disasters. But that was only the beginning.

Carraway and pilot Travis Balthazor fire up a multi-rotor drone.

The drone is about the size of a shoebox, with four propellers lifting it gently into the air. A stark, white body made of plastic is highlighted with blinking green lights. It hovers, staying steady as a rock, before quickly and effortlessly maneuvering up and down, side-to-side. Beneath it hangs a small camera, which transmits a video feed to a tablet.

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Research drones come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Ranging from inexpensive multi-rotored drones like the one that's pictured, to military grade fixed-wing drones that can fetch $250,000 or more

"There are really good applications for this," Carraway says. "There is a lot of industrial inspection research that we've been involved in, such as looking at blades on a windmill, or doing bridge inspections.

Things where you need to precisely maneuver around.”

Dangling an inspector from a windmill or a tall bridge can be dangerous. The idea here is that by using drones, companies can eliminate that risk and its cost, while still doing their job.

Carraway says finding applications for drones is only limited to your imagination—and regulation. But, the program here in Salina was just cut some slack thanks to a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We were awarded the first certificate of authorization to conduct research operations anywhere in the state,” Carraway says.

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The belle of the ball is this military grade, fixed-wing drone. With a price tag of $250,000, this unmanned aircraft can fly for 15-20 hours. It is designed to fly beyond the line of sight. Despite its price tag, Kurt Carraway says that relatively inexpensive styrofoam-bodied aircraft can do many of the same tasks.

The decision opens up their research in a big way. Another use for these unmanned aircraft is agriculture; fixed-wing drones, which mimic a plane, fly over row after row of crops, snapping photographs as they go. The photos are eventually compiled into 3D models which, admittedly, don’t mean a whole lot to the pilots.

“But, that's where the real magic happens," Carraway explains. "We get with agronomists and work shoulder to shoulder with them, getting to the point where we're coming up with prescriptions, making that crop yield as maximized as possible.”

The 3D models can determine if crops are suffering from drought or pests and can tell a farmer where to focus their efforts.

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Prior to the decision by the FAA, drone pilots would have to plan 60 days ahead, requiring approval to fly over a crop field. Now, as long as it’s not over a populated area and the drones stay below a certain altitude, they can be flown anywhere in Kansas.

So, how long before we see drones flying over Wichita?

“It's gonna happen," Carraway says. "But there's a couple of pieces that need to occur.”

First, Carraway says researchers like him have to prove that drones are safe to fly beyond the line of sight.

And second, the FAA must continue to deregulate.

Only then, will we get those drone window washers, drone dog walkers, and most importantly, drone pizza delivery.

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To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur