CMU Starts Using Unmanned Helicopter, Hyperspectral Camera

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CMU's unmanned aerial vehicle with hyperspectral camera. CMU photo.

CMU’s unmanned aerial vehicle with hyperspectral camera. CMU photo.

MT. PLEASANT (WWJ) – Central Michigan University has acquired what is says is the only unmanned aerial vehicle in Michigan that is equipped with a hyperspectral camera, a six-foot long helicopter that will significantly advance research imaging of Great Lakes wetlands.

The camera takes extremely high-resolution images in 334 colors compared to typical cameras that capture just three. (Think of the red, green and blue color sliders in Photoshop or iPhoto — then imagine 334 sliders.)

Researchers will use the semi-autonomous helicopter, controlled via computer or by radio waves, to capture images of vegetation in wetlands throughout the Great Lakes basin. Their work will continue the fight against invasive species, protect rare plants and ultimately help to preserve and protect the world’s largest supply of fresh water.

“This allows us to determine where and when we collect the data instead of relying on archives from the federal government or commercial vendors,” said Benjamin Heumann, director of CMU’s Center for Geographic Information Science. The center conducts research locally, regionally and internationally on social and environmental issues that require spatial analysis.

“We now have the technology to do more than anyone else in the state in geomapping and analysis of wetland ecosytems,” Heumann said. “Using the hyperspectral camera, we have the capability to collect aerial imagery with far greater precision than manned aircraft and satellite.”

Now, instead of capturing an image that shows a tree, for example, the hyperspectral camera will show individual plant leaves throughout a wetland.

The helicopter flies at about 10 miles an hour and to the height of a 40-story building. It is flown under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

Unmanned aerial vehicles historically have been used in law enforcement and the military, although there are many civilian applications as well.

The technology also has applications in agriculture. Heumann recently spoke at the Michigan Advanced Aerial System Consortium about the potential use of UAVs for mapping disease, detecting weeds and monitoring fertilization and drought in the state’s $5.72 billion field crops industry.

“We can help farmers better forecast crop yields,” Heumann said. “By mapping disease, we can pinpoint more precisely where to target the spraying of pesticides, reducing costs to farmers and health hazards to humans and the environment.”

Heumann and a team of graduate students will use the helicopter for the first time this spring to determine the biodiversity of a wetland area in Washtenaw County.

The unmanned aerial vehicle and the hyperspectral camera were purchased by the College of Science and Technology for  $140,000.

CMU oversees a $10 million federal grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct Great Lakes wetlands preservation research. CMU allocates funds through this grant to nine other universities and three governmental agencies. With the funds, researchers monitor and protect vital geographic areas, addressing issues threatening the health of the Great Lakes ecosystems. Their efforts include identifying invasive species, preserving wetlands and managing water quality.

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