Unmanned research helicopter lands in CMU

Heumann and the the six-foot-long research helicopter

Heumann and the the six-foot-long research helicopter

It’s a bird, it’s a plane; no, it’s a helicopter. An unmanned helicopter has found its way to CMU this week and it’s not an ordinary type of helicopter.

The six-foot chopper is a device with a special camera to take research images of the Great Lakes.

The helicopter is equipped with a hyperspectral camera. CMU biology officials said the machine will capture images of vegetation in wetlands throughout the Great Lakes basin.

The camera takes “extremely” high resolution images in 334 colors compared to typical cameras that capture just three.

Ben Heumann is the Director of CMU’s Center for Geographic Information Science, and is the head pilot for helicopter projects.

“What’s unique about this instrument is that it’s a scientific instrument, so it actually precisely measures the amount of energy in the individual wavelengths of light,” he said. “What that allows us to do is really hone in on the types of materials and chemicals that are within a leaf.”

Heumann said the imaging will allow scientists to differentiate between different species, and to determine how much chlorophyll or nitrogen is within a leaf.

He said CMU is the only organization in Michigan that will be able to collect its own hyperspectral imagery when and where its needed.

“Otherwise, we would have to use archived satellite data or hire a commercial vendor to fly an airplane,” Heumann said. “But we can specifically fly to where and when we need to, which gives us a really unique opportunity to build data sets that other groups don’t have.”

It gives us a great opportunity to be a leader in that regard and to collaborate with other universities; it’s also a great opportunity that the students at CMU get a unique training and data set for a growing industry.”

Heumann said his goal is to gather and apply research about invasive species and to protect the world’s largest supply of fresh water.

For example, he said, the research has the potential to help farmers better forecast crop yields.

In order for the research to be conducted and for the helicopter to be flown, CMU’s researchers must abide guidelines from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We can only operate in places that we’ve received a certificate of authorization from the FAA,” Heumann said. “They do a very thorough safety review of the location where we fly, in terms of other traffic, buildings and people. We only operate in places that are remote, so over parks, farmland, wetlands, places that there isn’t a lot of built environment.”

Heumann said the research team is always at least 50 feet away from the helicopter when it takes off.

The helicopter can fly for only 20 minutes at a time. It flies approximately 10 miles per hour, and to the height of a 40-story building.