Drones bring notice to coastal research

By: JAMES A. ROBICHAUX

Ever since Nicholls State University was listed in release of information about licensees of unmanned aerial drones — the same technology used to kill enemy combatants in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan — NSU geomatics professor Dr. Balaji Ramachandran has been busy with media requests for information on the university’s drone usage.

On April 21, The Wall Street Journal published a story with the names of all recipients of drone licenses, which included some academic institutions such as NSU.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights advocacy and legal organization based in San Francisco, filed a Freedom of Information Act with the Federal Aviation Administration for a list of licensees of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs.)

“We have been working on our UAV research project over the Barrier Islands for four years now,” Ramachandran said, “but one article in the Wall Street Journal about drone technology listing Nicholls State University as one of the schools with FAA certificate of authorization (COA) to fly UAV started a series of media interview requests.”

Ramachandran said that in the last few weeks, he has been contacted by Time magazine, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy’s office, other local newspapers and various state agencies who heard about the program’s capabilities over the radio and the Wall Street Journal article.

“Once they understand our research focus which is peaceful civilian applications such as coastal restoration, bird habitat mapping, hurricane and levee monitoring, and disaster mapping, they were cool about it, and they could relate to it as those issues are very critical to our state,” he said.

Concerns about threats to privacy were the reasons why an advocacy group recently got the FAA to release the names, and Ramachandran spoke of those concerns.

“This is what I tell people, and I’ve given so many interviews in the last week or so,” he said, stating that similar concerns were expressed decades ago when global positioning systems were introduced into uses beyond military.

“If you go back 40 years, GPS was in its nascent stage. It was a Department of Defense technology, but once it was put into civilian hands, it changed. Everybody uses GPS,” Ramachandran said.

“Just like that, UAV is also a Department of Defense technology, (but) they want to give it to the civilian sector,” he said.

Ramachandran also described the process that it takes to get a license for a UAV and described the limitations placed on the license holder.

“We have to go through FAA. You can’t fly in civilian airspace,” he said, stating that the UAVs have a maximum allowed altitude of 400 feet.

“First, you need approval from the FAA just to have it. So, if I have three drones, I have to have three certificates of authorization,” Ramachandran said. “Further, the limitation is that we can fly only in certain areas. In our case, we are interested in only the barrier islands. We can’t fly anywhere else.”

The NSU drones are launched by students from the barrier islands themselves.

“Ours is a small drone. I can hand-hold it. It is hand-launchable, has 45 minutes of endurance, and is battery-operated,” Ramachandran said. “Even with that, I have to have two pilots on the ground. That’s the requirement because of safety issues.”

“We go to barrier islands on boats, then we put all the ground control equipment on the land on the islands,” he said.

Crescent Unmanned Systems is a company headquartered just outside of New Orleans in Avondale created in late 2010 to manufacture such aircraft.

“We are partnering with them to use their airframe, which is a quad helicopter, in our research. This is great, a plus for us to work with a local firm in the state,” Ramachandran said.

The “quad-copter” has four vertical propellers.

In early 2008, NSU’s geomatics program was awarded $150,000 in federal grant money to purchase and install microwave radio equipment for the transmission and reception of data between NSU and Tulane University in New Orleans for the research on the coast and the wetlands, data gathered by the drones, according to NSU.

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