RALEIGH — On a windswept runway, sitting in the middle of a field at an aviation facility north of Raleigh, Joe Eyerman is doing what scientists do best — testing his hypothesis. Eyerman is launching a drone aircraft.
“Okay, launch,” he shouts, after hearing the beep that signals the engine is ready to fire.
There’s a click, then a whir as the engine begins turning the propeller. Eyerman holds the aircraft aloft above his head and, as the whine of the engine grows and the propeller turns faster, he takes a few steps before pushing the plane into the wind. Suddenly the three-foot-long aircraft is flying and climbing into the sky.
“If you think about most research, it uses GPS, a camera and a computer,” Eyerman says, as he watches the drone circle overhead. “We’ve just inserted that technology into the research process by putting it all on a drone. Now we want to find new applications for this technology, and whether new kinds of information can be found by looking at things from a new perspective.”
Eyerman is the director of RTI International’s Center for Security, Defense and Safety. With drones becoming more available, affordable and accepted, he’s exploring how the new angles on the world, provided by drone aircraft, can be used.
The tests have required months of work with an assortment of aircraft. Eyerman first tested his theory at a climbing wall with an eight-propeller drone that hovers more than it flies. He showed video of a woman climbing the wall that was shot from the ground. He then showed video of the same woman shot from a drone that was hovering behind her about 20 feet off the ground.
“Now let’s pretend you need to help the climber get where they are going as quickly as possible,” Eyerman says smiling. “It’s difficult from only one angle.”
The difference was striking. Viewed from the ground, there was very little information you could relay to the climber because all you could see was their feet and their backside. You could not explain where next to place the feet or where the next handhold was.
“However with the drone, you can see all of that,” says Eyerman. “We sat down with her and the climbing instructor and went over things. The next climb was dramatically improved.”
Eyerman then put his drone and his theory to a real world test on a 100 meter high cliff in Ireland. That’s the equivalent of a building about 25 stories high. The same challenges that were faced at the climbing wall were discovered on the cliffs. Once again, when the climbers were shown video of the cliffs in advance, the climbs were easier and quicker.
Researchers then tested the idea of using a drone to guide people down a rocky, rugged trail and into a valley covered with boulders. As the drone flies above, controllers communicate with climbers wearing helmets equipped with headsets to warn them about obstacles and the easiest path to reach a goal. Once again, the drone provided important information.
“The most obvious application in our testing of this technology is for search and rescue work and what’s most important is that it increases safety,” explains Eyerman. “That’s because it reduces the risk for the climber/rescuer and it should reduce the time it takes to find the lost or injured person.”
Eyerman is now creating standards for rescue crews and emergency workers who want to use drones to help them respond to search and rescue situations.
Which brings us back to that test being conducted at the flight facility north of Raleigh. It’s a federally approved flight center that is owned by North Carolina State University. Encouraged by his work with drones in search and rescue situations, Eyerman wanted to test whether the so-called bird’s eye view on the world could benefit demographic, social science or public health research.
Currently, social science research uses satellite images, which provide some useful information but is still largely dependent on researchers going door to door in communities and talking with people. The question is whether drones could provide initial information that would make the work of a researcher on the ground easier or if drones could supplement the information being gathered.
Researchers chose a small, rectangular, one story building on the grounds as their target. They placed several objects in front of the building that would suggest it is a residence. Then, they looked at satellite images of the building that are taken from 300-600 miles above Earth, which is the orbit for mapping satellites. The building is clearly visible along with all of the other buildings at the flight facility. But the photo shows only the roofs of buildings. There are very few distinguishing features that are identifiable and the objects that were placed around the building aren’t visible.
The drone was then flown over the target building at a height of about 100 feet. The objects were clearly visible. Eyerman says the test is a good indication that drones can be used to provide more information about the uses of buildings. Researchers would still be required to collect demographic information in person for a study, but drones could be used to collect preliminary information.
The airfield test wrapped up months of work with drones. And as the drone landed and the team packed up, Eyerman declared the work a success. There were no great discoveries made in the testing. There were no cures for diseases found. But there were new uses for a valuable research tool that were validated.
“The one thing about research is that it can always be improved,” says Eyerman. “And that’s what this does; you can do research you’re already doing better with a drone or you can start new avenues of research that you couldn’t do before because drones give you a chance to put a sensor or a camera above a topic you are wanting to study.”