Jacksonville District’s UAV program soars

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — “All right guys, going into take-off mode. You are hot!” 

Every­one aboard the air­boat grows qui­et. It’s the moment they’ve been antic­i­pat­ing after hours of prepa­ra­tion that start­ed short­ly after dawn on this late Novem­ber day. Biol­o­gist Jon Mor­ton has been lead­ing the team through pre-oper­a­tional checks.

With a mighty heave, Damon Wolfe, geo­de­sist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers Jack­sonville Dis­trict, launch­es the NOVA Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cle on a flight over Lake Okee­chobee.
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Damon Wolfe (low­er right), geo­de­sist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers Jack­sonville Dis­trict, leads pre-oper­a­tion checks on the NOVA Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cle in advance of a flight at Lake Okee­chobee, Fla.
Click to enlarge


The pilot flips a switch on a remote con­trol. Sud­den­ly, the sound of a high-speed pro­peller fills the air around Eagle Bay at Lake Okee­chobee. A small air­plane that looks like a toy is thrown sky­ward. Only this air­plane is no toy. It’s an impor­tant piece of equip­ment that helps Mor­ton and oth­er biol­o­gists track the effec­tive­ness of their efforts on inva­sive plants. 

The NOVA Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cle offers the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers a low-cost method of obtain­ing pic­tures from the air for a wide vari­ety of applications. 

“The NOVA has been devel­oped to pro­vide a tech­no­log­i­cal edge for us,” said Lar­ry Tay­lor, NOVA Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cle, or UAV, pro­gram man­ag­er. “Its spe­cial­ty is detect­ing and mon­i­tor­ing change over time. We have used it for lev­ee mon­i­tor­ing. We have detect­ed anom­alies in the lev­ees that weren’t detect­ed by ground observation.” 

In addi­tion to the lev­ee mon­i­tor­ing the NOVA has also been used for wildlife sur­veys, reg­u­la­to­ry per­mit recon­nais­sance, inva­sive species con­tract assess­ments and inva­sive species acreage estimation. 

On this day, the NOVA is fly­ing over hun­dreds of acres at Eagle Bay, gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion for the inva­sive species man­age­ment program. 

“We do a lot of inva­sive aquat­ic plant work,” said Mor­ton, “Eagle Bay is one of the areas we have to man­age more intense­ly and work with oth­er agen­cies because this area is a high pri­or­i­ty for the endan­gered Ever­glades Snail Kite. We want­ed to get a snap­shot view of what it looked like at this time of year.” 

The pilot smooth­ly guides the UAV upward. Mor­ton checks a computer. 

“Alti­tude 18, air speed 11, bat­tery 18–6,” he says, pleased that the air­craft is pick­ing up speed and altitude. 

Mor­ton likes the detailed pho­tog­ra­phy the UAV provides. 

“We’re try­ing to get two-and-a-half-cen­time­ter res­o­lu­tion, which will allow us to map out and tell exact­ly what species of plants are grow­ing in the area,” Mor­ton said. “Before the NOVA was avail­able, we just had to take imagery that was obtained through U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey, or hire a pri­vate contractor.” 

“We did­n’t get near­ly the res­o­lu­tion that we can with the NOVA,” Mor­ton said. “We’re able to fly more rapid­ly. We’re able to fly cheap­er. We can deploy it from an air­boat. We’ve used it from a swamp bug­gy. We can launch it from the back of a truck.” 

The NOVA makes a pass in the sky over­head. How­ev­er, it quick­ly becomes a small speck as it flies toward its next turn­ing point, more than a mile away from the con­trollers on the ground. 

“Turn­ing to the north,” Mor­ton says, “increas­ing the air speed to 16 meters per second.” 

The NOVA weighs 11 pounds, which includes its pay­load of a high-res­o­lu­tion cam­era, its on-board com­put­er, and a glob­al posi­tion­ing sys­tem. The pilot uses a remote con­trol to guide the plane dur­ing take­off and land­ing. When in the air, the plane flies a route accord­ing to the instruc­tions that were pro­grammed on the ground sta­tion com­put­er pri­or to takeoff. 

“We’re tak­ing steps to use some of the tech­nol­o­gy that’s avail­able to us today, that peo­ple are only famil­iar with in mil­i­tary terms,” said Mor­ton. “This is an actu­al civil­ian appli­ca­tion for unmanned systems.” 

“It’s not a tac­ti­cal tool,” said Tay­lor. “It’s not designed for the fight­ing Sol­dier to loft it and see if there are bad guys over the hill. The pay­load we car­ry is high-res­o­lu­tion, ver­sus low-res­o­lu­tion, with on-board data stor­age because the mass of data that we gath­er can­not eas­i­ly be trans­port­ed in real time back to our ground sta­tion. It’s more of a pre­ci­sion-map­ping tool.” 

Devel­op­ment of the NOVA was a joint ven­ture between the Corps of Engi­neers and aero­space engi­neers from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da. The NOVA is made of hybrid fiber­glass and a car­bon-fiber com­pos­ite. Recharge­able lithi­um-poly­mer bat­ter­ies sup­ply pow­er to the elec­tric motor that oper­ates the propeller. 

“One of the key things about the devel­op­ment of this tool, since the Com­pre­hen­sive Ever­glades Restora­tion Plan pro­gram was one of the ini­tial tar­gets for it, it had to be devel­oped as a water­proof tool,” said Tay­lor. “It works extreme­ly well in wet envi­ron­ments. It can land safe­ly on the water, and it can take off and land in very small areas” 

The pilot resumes con­trol of the NOVA and begins guid­ing it in cir­cles toward its final descent. As it emerges into view, it seems to hang in the air for a moment, as the pilot works the con­trols to slow it down and guide it toward a soft land­ing on the water. 

“Alti­tude 13,” Mor­ton says. 

All grows qui­et again, except for Morton’s sta­tus updates and the occa­sion­al sound of the NOVA motor as the pilot keeps it in the air as long as pos­si­ble, guid­ing the plane as close as pos­si­ble to the air­boat. The NOVA final­ly splash­es gen­tly into the lake, the motor of the air­boat cranks up, and the crew quick­ly retrieves the plane. 

“Its pri­ma­ry mis­sion start­ed off as being a CERP (Com­pre­hen­sive Ever­glades Restora­tion Plan) resource,” said Tay­lor, “but we have since found that it is applic­a­ble to many oth­er Corps activ­i­ties, like inva­sive species mon­i­tor­ing and con­struc­tion mon­i­tor­ing and Reg­u­la­to­ry recon­nais­sance. We’re in the process of expand­ing its use for beach re-nour­ish­ment projects, and we’re get­ting inquiries from oth­er Corps dis­tricts for var­i­ous activities.” 

Tay­lor also points out the finan­cial ben­e­fits from the infor­ma­tion the NOVA is able to provide. 

“We’ve detect­ed inva­sive species change, and the effec­tive­ness of treat­ments on the inva­sive plants, Tay­lor said. “That helps us save tax­pay­er dol­lars because we can actu­al­ly mon­i­tor con­tract effec­tive­ness to deter­mine if the monies are being spent in the right place and if the treat­ments are effec­tive or not.” 

The mis­sion com­plete, the team can fly the exact path again if they desire at some point in the future, as the coor­di­nates of the flight have been stored in the computer. 

“We can repro­duce our flights by reusing the same pro­gram in a flight and fly it again in six months or six years, said Tay­lor. “We can fly over the exact same course with a great degree of pre­ci­sion, which is one of the things that allow us to detect change over time.” 

U.S. Army 

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