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K-Staters design and build a low-cost remote sensing tool for environmental studies

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- A Kansas State University research team is prototyping a small, inexpensive remote-control plane as a sensing tool, also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle, to collect environmental data. The team plans to test it over the Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan this summer.

If the sensing tool performs as the team hopes, it will be made available to climate scientists, who would then be able to reconstruct it to obtain high-resolution images and reliable data.

The development of the sensing tool is part of a three-year research instrumentation project that began in fall 2005 with a $597,000 National Science Foundation grant.

The researchers are Dale Schinstock, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Jay Ham, a professor of agronomy and an environmental biophysicist; and Doug Goodin, professor of geography and a remote sensing expert. Schinstock is in charge of developing the airframe and the remote control systems for the sensing tool, while Ham and Goodin will put it to work once it's flight worthy.

According to the researchers, the sensing tool/unmanned aerial vehicle should be capable of "flying low and slow" just a few feet above the ground. The onboard payload of digital cameras, spectral radiometers and other remote sensing instruments will produce high-resolution images and data about small groups of plants and their environmental stress level.

At just 15 pounds with payload, the bantamweight hobby airframe with an 80-inch wingspan has been modified to house the remote sensing instruments in a carbon fiber-reinforced fuselage. A K-State graduate student designed and built an autopilot for first phases of the project. However, the researchers have opted for incorporating a commercially available autopilot so the sensing tool can be reproduced easily by others.

"This will be very easy to use. Its weight and size allow it to be launched by hand and flopped down in the grass for
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Contact: Dale Schinstock
dales@mne.ksu.edu
785-532-2608
Kansas State University
9-May-2006


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