Flying Higher, Seeing Further

  • Published
  • By Mr. Rodney B. Furr
  • 439th Airlift Wing

Unlocking the skies over Westover, a brace of small, unmanned aerial systems spent a week in March mapping the base and evaluating structural roofs.  

A team from Air Force Reserve Command’s Basing and Logistics, led by Richard “Ryan” O’Quinn employed two sUAS’s to perform a detailed grid pattern mapping of the installation during the week-long event.  The team also completed thermal imaging flights during night hours to detect leaks in building roofs.

A cartographer by trade, O’Quinn is the AFRC Mobile Survey and sUAS Program manager.  Westover is the third Reserve installation he has mapped, behind Homestead ARB, Fla. and Niagara ARS, NY.  Because the AFRC Basing and Logistics office owns the drones and software, the aerial mapping program now saves the Command an estimated 95% of the previous contractor-based process.

“It (doing an environmental study via aerial mapping) is something we’re really excited about,” O’Quinn said.  “We’re always thinking geospatially, so for Westover to reach out and ask us if we have this capability, is pretty exhilarating.”

Two of AgEagle Aerial Mapping sUAS’s were employed for the project.  Both the eBee TAC and eBee X can be operated by one person and deployed in as little as three minutes. With a 90-minute lithium battery powered flight time, the lightweight drones are compatible with a wide range of interchangeable photogrammetry cameras that capture reliable aerial imagery – from 3D models to orthomosaics.   

Orthomosaics is a process is where the geometric distortion has been corrected and the imagery has been color balanced to produce a seamless mosaic dataset.

For the daytime operations, the base was divided into grids.  The drones first mapped the entire perimeter, and then moved into each grid.  By ‘mowing the sky’ from an altitude of 200 to 400 feet, the drones were able to capture – to within one-half inch resolution – every aspect of Westover’s land mass.

The nighttime operations were organized around the larger structures on base.  “The way it (nighttime thermal mapping) works is the surface of the roof will cool a lot quicker than the wet insulation. So whenever you're flying thermal, you look for anomalies – spots that don't match the temperature of the rest of the roof.” O’Quinn said.  “And that is a good indication of wet insulation. It's very cost effective to find a leak and repair it versus replacing an entire roof.”

“The AFRC GIS team has really impressed us.  In addition to implementing sUAS for aerial mapping, the GIS team has agreed to provide us with several enhancements, to include thermal assessments of our roofs,” said Mr. David Morin, 439th Airlift Wing base civil engineer.  “This will enable us to target degraded areas on hangar roofs that are hard to locate. Transition to sUAS is a game changer for base CE.”

The drones were pre-programmed with grid assignments via a laptop.  After engine start and warmup, they were hand-launched to a prescribed location. 

Though the airborne time was slated for 90-minutes, the sUAS automatically returned to the control point after 70 minutes, to afford transit time to and from the assigned grid.  The advantage of having two drones meant that one could be launched immediately after the other was recovered upon landing. 

The team kept three battery packs always charged and ready in order to provide continuity of operations.

One product of the aerial charting is the production of a 3D map, which is a great benefit to Security Forces.  O’Quinn noted that if there is an emergency event, SFS would be able to leverage the comprehensive base map to establish lines of sight from an elevated perspective.

“As the sUAS Program Manager, my involvement with the AFRC sUAS Program Collection Team was to make sure there was communication between them and SF operations during their mission”, said MSgt Michael Powell, 439th Security Forces integrated defense manager. “However, it was very interesting seeing the 3D imagery of the buildings on the installation. It would benefit SF to incorporate the imagery into our Installation Familiarization and Armed Response classes.”

With a wingspan of 45 inches, both drones are similarly shaped like B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.  They are constructed of a Styrofoam-based material with compartments for the RF transponder, engine and battery and cameras. 

Because they are lightweight, safe and efficient use are subject to current wind speeds at the time of flight.  In addition, the eBee X is all black, which is sometimes seen as a predator by hawks.  O’Quinn said this drone has been recovered from a flight with peck marks and small pieces missing from it, due to aggressive birds of prey.

However, the black-and-white speckled eBee TAC occasionally attracts geese that will fly in formation with it, O’Quinn said.

Both drones completed the week-long mapping flights unscathed, and Patriot Wing agencies have gained a new higher and more detailed perspective of the installation.