JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – The Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center is leveraging the latest unmanned aerial system technology to transform the Air Force environmental program.
The effort, a partnership between AFIMSC and the Air Force Innovation Hub Network (AFWERX), began as an idea to improve land surveying – for floodplain mapping, vegetation classification and endangered species management – but can potentially save the Air Force $2 million annually.
“This project is one of those rare instances where you can massively increase operational effectiveness while improving efficiency and reducing cost,” said Marc Vandeveer, AFIMSC chief innovation officer. “It didn’t take me more than five seconds to recognize the potential for Air Force wide impact, and credit goes to Air Force natural resources subject matter expert Kevin Porteck for pushing this revolutionary concept forward.”
After securing an Air Force waiver to use a commercial-off-the-shelf UAS on an installation, AFIMSC field-tested the project at JBSA-Camp Bullis Sept. 4 and 5, assessing the habitat of the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered species on the installation, with UASs.
“We looked at a 300-acre area to determine if this platform can characterize a suitable habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler better than putting people (on the ground),” Porteck said.
“Will it be faster, better and cheaper? We suspect it will.”
After extensive pre-flight testing and sensor calibration, the team flew a flawless mission and successfully collected high-resolution imagery, according to Trish Marshall, project manager with the AFIMSC innovation office.
The next step is for Aerial Applications, the company operating the drones and sensors, to analyze the data gathered during the field test so the Air Force environmental team can present the information to state regulators and prove the new methodology works, she said.
The Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s natural resources team brought the idea of using UASs equipped with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), multi-spectral sensors and machine-learning algorithms to map, survey and inventory land to the innovation office last fall.
“There’s a need at every installation to characterize, monitor and assess land - including endangered species habitat - to ensure we’re in compliance with federal regulations,” Porteck explained.
“If we’re not in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, for example, we can’t execute our mission,” he said.
That work is currently done through expensive aircraft leases, or labor-intensive, on-the-ground measurements. Porteck thinks there’s a better way.
“We want to do it by remote sensing on a UAS platform,” he said.
LiDAR technology works by “shooting” millions of laser pulses and recording the signals as they bounce back to create 3-D maps and models. The pulses can cut through vegetation and determine extremely accurate topography, Porteck explained.
“You can pick out individual trees. And with multi-spectral imagery - technology capable of capturing images beyond the visible spectrum - you can actually tell what kind of trees or plants you have,” he added.
The technology can also determine other characteristics, including overall vegetation health and suitable vs. non-suitable habitat.
Vegetation characterization and mapping with multi-spectral imagery isn’t new, Porteck said, but technological advancements have made it more accessible, less expensive and more sophisticated. The initiative to use UASs equipped with sensors for environmental purposes didn’t gain momentum, however, until the innovation office cultivated the idea.
“Our focus is to help translate ideas, enter into a collaborative environment with innovation execution vehicles – including partnerships with small businesses and technology start-ups through AFWERX – and get those ideas implemented,” Vandeveer said.
AFIMSC allocated $150,000 to work with AFWERX on advancing the project. AFWERX in turn provided $50,000, and the Small Business Innovation Research program added another $750,000.
“Drone technology is an area that is exploding right now,” Vandeveer said. “The Air Force has a lot of requirements that could be done significantly cheaper – and significantly better – with this equipment.”
Data collected could be stored in a cloud-based platform, allowing multiple users to access and use the information for their mission requirements. Using a cloud-based platform would lower costs, eliminate redundant or recurring surveys, and allow for the integration of multiple sets of data in one environment.
“The time to gather and analyze some information could potentially go from a year and a half to a week,” Vandeveer said.
If successful and ultimately implemented across the Air Force, the service could apply the technology to many installation and mission support requirements outside of environmental management, including energy heating, cooling, liquid or gas losses; infrastructure assessments; surface classifications; or explosive impact mapping, Vandeveer said.
“It’s going to be awesome.”
For more information about the AFIMSC Innovation Office, visit www.afimsc.af.mil.