More Research Projects Featuring Drones Get OK From UND Committee

UND faculty members are planning to use a rural piece of university property to conduct research utilizing unmanned aircraft to train law enforcement officers and map vegetation.

Oakville Prairie, an area with more than 900 acres of land about 12 miles west of Grand Forks, will be home to the projects set to begin in June. Both projects received approval last week from the university’s UAS Research Ethics and Privacy Committee, which grants permission for any research activities associated with UND.

The law enforcement portion will be overseen by Al Frazier, an aviation professor and part-time deputy for the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department.

Officers will fly unmanned aircraft systems owned by the department as part of training exercises that include rural search and rescue scenarios, determining how to best use an aircraft deployed in tandem with a canine unit and potentially differentiating marijuana plants from native plants.

The Sheriff’s Department will need permission from the North Dakota’s Attorney General’s Office to move forward with the marijuana research, which would involve growing marijuana in a secure indoor location and transporting it to the site.

“If we get that approval, we will likely have some marijuana grown and place it in pots there and then use a multispectral camera to differentiate between the natural foliage and the marijuana,” Frazier said Friday.

It’s likely infrared imaging, which can pick up on color differences invisible to the human eye that are caused by the reflection and absorption of various light wavelengths, would play a role in identifying marijuana among the prairie plants.

Biological mapping

While law officers conduct training, UND biologists and geographers will focus on vegetation growing at the site, which is one of the school’s three biology field stations used to study ecosystems.

According to a project application submitted to the committee, an effort headed by biology professor Robert Newman seeks to use unmanned aircraft to produce fine-scale maps of plant communities.

Traditionally, researchers have had the options of getting high resolution pictures from the ground that cover a small area or lower resolution pictures from farther away. At Oakville Prairie, flying an unmanned aircraft at a low altitude could give researchers the middle ground in terms of quality images over a large area that they’re seeking.

Using data collected by the aircraft, UND faculty noted in their application they hope to create maps and monitor the vegetation.

While conducting flights, both groups are expected to post signs informing passersby that UAS will be flying in the area.

Other research

The UAS Research Ethics and Privacy Committee also has given another research outfit the green light to conduct agricultural research using unmanned aircraft.

The Northern Plains UAS Test Site, a federally designated organization that researches the use and integration of unmanned aircraft in the national airspace, now can pursue such ventures with clients.

Some that have expressed interest are entities at North Dakota State University, test site Director of Research and Development Chris Theisen said. The test site has several partnerships with NDSU Extension Service research sites, but having an official agricultural mission set gives the organization more flexibility with clients, the test site’s project application said.

Under the new protocol, test site pilots can fly aircraft for a variety of data collection, including using images to detect disease and nutrient deficiencies in crops, monitor livestock for illness using thermal imaging and gather information on how the energy industry affects grasslands, the project application stated.

The test site is headquartered at UND in Grand Forks but has permissions from the Federal Aviation Administration that allow its staff to fly