Researchers at Utah State University are launching slingshot-like UAVs into the air... for the sake of science. The recently launched AggieAir Flying Circus is a full-service aerial photography lab that uses unmanned drone aircraft, launched via bungee, to map the environment.
AggieAir was founded by Utah State's Utah Water Research Laboratory in 2009, partly to take advantage of debates of FAA regulations allowing unmanned drones to fly over civilian airspace (something Fast Company has covered extensively). Domestic UAV-friendly regulations have resulted in a small boom in startups using unmanned aircraft for aerial photography, surveillance, and recreation.
Utah Water Research Laboratory's Mac McKee tells Fast Company that the UAVs make it possible to measure habitat lost to invasive plant species, monitor fish habitats, and map vegetation. Just think of them as green drones.
For all intents and purposes, the bungee system used to launch the drones are indistinguishable from slingshots. Bungees are a popular method for launching lightweight UAVs; they are extremely energy efficient and let small vehicles save precious, precious battery life. AggieAir marks one of the first times that bungee launchers have been used in a non-military environment for educational or commercial applications.
According to McKee, the next generation of Utah State drones will debut this summer. The UAVs are primarily used by the Water Research Laboratory and by other departments at the university. Routes are preprogrammed into the drone, which features an autopilot, GPS, and an intertial measurement unit to keep track of pitch and yaw. The small drones are also equipped with two cameras.
Here is some footage of a drone at work:
[Image: Utah State University]