agricultural drone (EAKNARIN JITONG/

Expanding rural infrastructure for drones

Drones can provide significant benefits for residents and business in rural areas: delivering medical supplies, collecting data on the status of crops, aiding in search and rescue efforts.


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Unfortunately, these areas also tend also have very little in the way of communications infrastructure that unmanned aerial systems can leverage, according to James Grimsley, the president and CEO of  autonomous systems developer Design Intelligence Inc. DII has been working as a consultant to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma on its drone programs.

There are two levels of infrastructure to consider with drones operating in rural areas: air traffic management and data management, said Grimsley, who also serves as associate vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma's Norman Campus.

The technology developed to track commercial aircraft wasn’t designed to accomodate large numbers of drones, so ground-based radar will be tested in Oklahoma. The required data exchange between operator and drone will likely be handled by “a little bit of everything,” including cellular networks and the expansion of ground-based fiber, he said.

As one of the selected participants of the Federal Aviation Administration's Drone Integration Pilot Program, the Choctaw Nation and its 20 partners will be investigating how rural communities can best create the infrastructure to support integration of drones into the national airspace and advance extended visual line of sight and night operations. It will also be testing drones for agriculture, public safety and weather warning systems.

Among the Choctaw Nation's partners are Airxos, which has a background in working on UAS traffic management projects; AirMap, a provider of Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability software that facilitates drone flight planning and authorization; and Intel, which has experience with drone communications and integrating computer vision into unmanned systems.

One of the first tests will be on a 44,000-acre ranch owned by the tribe that doesn’t have a built-out road system, where the partners will evaluate drones' ability to find lost cattle and deliver medical supplies beyond the operator's line of sight. The tribe and its partners will also be conducting night flights to measure variables in crops that could affect yield.

Weather is another area of interest. Grimsley said the team wants to use the drones to get better data on weather to potentially help improve tornado warning.  The current system gives residents only about 12 minutes warning, which is "not a lot of time,” he said.

In August, the Choctaw Nation will demonstrate its work with extended visual line of sight capabilities and night flights.

“I have never seen the momentum moving forward like we have with this,” Grimsley said. “The resources the FAA [has] devoted to it, the attention they’re putting to it, the cohesive kind of plan and kind of attitude within the government right now is very positive.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.


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