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Virginia one of six states designated as test site for unmanned vehicle systems

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Although twenty-eight states applied, according to Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) Business Development Manager Guy Kemmerly, only six states were selected as test sites for unmanned flying vehicles. Three of those states – Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland – are working together to form one test site through a partnership with MAAP.

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The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI.org) sponsored an information tent at last weekend’s Fly-In held at the Suffolk Executive Airport. The organization’s purpose in being there was to inform as many people as possible about the positive uses of unmanned vehicle technology and to help the general public realize it is not just about drones that are used as bombs or for surveillance.

Jerry Wright, a NASA official, discussed the multi-spectral possibilities of unmanned vehicles. Specifically, he shared how one of these vehicles could fly over a several hundred acre field and determine where any blight may be, where there was a need for more fertilizer, where the land may be too dry or too wet, etc. For about $50 worth of gas to fly the vehicle, a farmer could save a wealth of time and money as the information sent back to the technologist on the ground is put into use. Less fertilizer would also mean less of a negative impact on the environment, also. Additionally, this would be technology any farmer would be able to afford.

Michael J. Logan, P.E., head of the Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Laboratory at the NASA Research Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia discussed how unmanned aerial vehicles could be used when dealing with fires. First, he discussed the Dismal Swamp fire which burned from August 4th to November 21st just a couple of years ago. That fire cost taxpayers a total of $12 million dollars.

Had the fire departments fighting that fire had access to unmanned aerial vehicles during that fire, information could have been transmitted to the technologists on the ground about any remaining hot spots which did not show because they were burning deep under the brush. It could have also helped firemen designate fire lines that could have helped them control the fire sooner. Unmanned aerial vehicles are also being used by some of the fire departments in the western section of the United States, especially where flash fires are occurring.

Guy Kemmerly shared information about how Virginia is now positioned to help define the emerging unmanned vehicle systems industry which generates high-paying, high-tech jobs for the Commonwealth’s communities in the process. The Commonwealth has already been cited as one of the top ten states that could see economic benefit from expanded use of autonomous vehicles.

As one of the six states selected by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), part of Virginia’s responsibility is to address public concerns about the civil and commercial use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Appearing at events such as the Fly-In is one of the ways in which they do this.

In addition to the aerial vehicles, the potential uses of unmanned ground and maritime vehicles are equally appealing. Besides self-driving cars, self-driving farm equipment is already being commercialized for row-crop harvesting and autonomous dump trucks are available for mining operations. Unmanned maritime vehicles (both underwater and surface vehicles) could transform cargo transport, water safety and fishery management.

Academic stakeholders in the Commonwealth include university researchers who are inventing new technology and university educators who are developing the workforce to sustain and lead the industry. Some Old Dominion University students in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering program showcased their solid-state morphing aircraft project. In particular, Hampton University, Liberty University and Virginia Tech all join Old Dominion as stakeholders in this venture.

Another stakeholder group that is uniquely well-represented in Virginia includes the variety of federal organizations such as NASA and the Department of Defense that have a direct interest in the development of unmanned systems.

Other uses for unmanned aerial vehicles not noted above include disaster management, thermal infrared power line surveys, telecommunication, weather monitoring, aerial imaging and mapping, tv news and sports coverage, moviemaking, environmental monitoring and oil and gas exploration. It’s easy to see how everyone will eventually benefit by the development of unmanned vehicle systems.

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