Up, up and away: How Virginia Tech researchers are taking drone technology to new heights

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Researchers at Virginia Tech are practicing using drones to search for radioactive materials that might be hidden in cars.

“So these are radioactive sources that we’re going to use for the test that we can detect with our drone,” said a researcher.

And even though the radioactivity is tiny, the emerging software had no problem finding it.

And soon the technology may be used to sweep U.S. ports to make sure incoming cargo poses no threat to the country. It’s just scratching the surface of where drones may be taking us.

“We have, I’m going to guess 10 to 20 faculty, not only here in Blacksburg but the agricultural research extension centers doing work with drones,” said Kevin Korchersberger, Ph.D. and drone researcher at Virginia Tech. “We’re still on this upward curve of all the applications we can use drones for. Every day it seems like there’s a new application that comes up.”

As class after class of Korchersberger’s students graduate, the possibilities for what drones can do gets just that much bigger. Another example is on display in his office, where a research assistant is helping determine how to re-build a town after severe flooding.

“I flew over the area. Collected the imagery,” said Danny Whitehurst, a Ph.D. graduate research assistant.

He recently patched together photos from a drone to help re-construct a community in Buchanan County where flooding destroyed 20 homes.

“You kind of feed up the images with the GPS coordinates, and it mostly does its thing,” said Whitehurst.

Whitehurst can twist and turn 3D images, to view the elevations and damage in a way that can only be collected from above, so the neighborhood can eventually be returned to its previous state. Or better.

Drones have particular use in emerging nations. Virginia Tech students are working with people in Malawi, an African nation where transportation and even communication can be difficult — flying medical samples on inexpensive drones designed in Blacksburg from remote areas back to cities.

John Carlin visits Virginia Tech to learn about their drone technology (WSLS)

“So we launch the aircraft with this pack of dried blood cell spot samples. The aircraft autonomously went on its mission. It climbed up to about 200 m of altitude named for the airport and vanished,” said Korchersberger. “Twenty minutes later we drove down the road and got within cell coverage and found out the aircraft had made an autonomous landing at the airport.”

The problem with advancing drone usage isn’t the technology. The problem is that it’s illegal to fly a drone beyond your line of sight. And until authorities figure out how to do so safely, advancement is more or less grounded.

Korchersberger describes a three-way bottleneck.

“I’d say it’s the technology of the drones itself. So the battery technology limited range in endurance. And that is significant. So drone deliveries can only occur within a certain distance of the base of operations. That limits your market. There’s also customer acceptance. Who really is going to be adopting the technology and is it something that they see benefits their life and makes things better. Or are they willing to just do things the way we have been doing? And then on the regulatory side, you have companies that want to expand into areas that are of higher density populations. Do you want to go longer distances without a visual line of sight? So the FAA is working as safely as they can to make sure that the companies are getting what they want out of this but protecting the public safety at the same time,” he said.

“The two biggest concerns that the FAA is concerned about is that drone interfering with or running into a traditional aircraft. Or an in-air aircraft occupied by somebody. That’s the first. The second is flying the drone over people or over moving vehicles,” said Tombo Jones with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

Jones is working on ways the FAA can safely let drones fly to more places safely. He says we are only doing about 5% of what drones could do.

For instance, he points to power companies that spend enormous amounts of money manually inspecting power liens, when a drone could do it at a fraction of the cost. But only if pilots were allowed to let them out of their sight.

“I can’t justify from a business perspective buying really expensive drones and technologies to enable inspection of power lines if I’m having to do one pole at a time. Because I’m doing it line of sight. Whereas if I could launch that drone and go inspect 25 poles over the course of 3 miles it would be much more efficient,” Jones said.

Jones says he can see a time in the next ten years when drones are carrying large cargo loads and even people. But while it may sound easy to determine routes through the air, since drones would not need highways, there are ethical considerations, such as the privacy of people under the drone’s flight path -- or other issues such as noise.

“If I create a highway in the sky and drones are expected to follow the same highway, am I introducing a higher level of noise exposure to some folks on the ground than others that I could avoid if I did not create a highway and instead let the automated systems decide where the aircraft goes and it’s different on every flight,” Jones said. He says these types of questions need to be answered before we as a society can tap into the 95 percent of drone capability that’s not currently being used.

Jones said drone deliveries done by WING, the New River Valley-based company, are just scratching the surface — using special permissions known as the extended visual line of sight.

But he and others at Virginia Tech are actively trying to figure out how to create highways in the sky for the time when drones are carrying cargo - and people.

People carrying drones are already being developed — and fast. Jones believes we’ll see people riding in them — instead of cars in as soon as ten years. As soon as technology and regulation are ready.

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John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.