Unmanned aircraft researchers associated with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) at Virginia Tech have tested new sensor technology designed to detect potentially disruptive activities along energy pipeline routes.
The recent flights near Farmville, in rural Virginia, involved a fixed-wing RS-20 unmanned aircraft system flying beyond the visual line-of-sight of ground observers. The aircraft, with a wingspan of more than 17 feet, was equipped with optical and infrared sensors designed to detect threats to pipeline integrity. A piloted chase aircraft, with a visual observer onboard, followed behind the UAS to ensure safety.
As part of the research objectives, flight researchers were required to identify construction equipment and other potential hazards to the pipeline that had been placed along the test route – a Colonial Pipeline Co. right-of-way. As is typical for a blind test, the flight operations team had no prior knowledge about the locations of the potential threats along the route.
The effort was supported by the Pipeline Research Council International, a collaborative research organization within the energy pipeline industry.
“We established the safe and efficient unmanned aviation operations during previous flights, and this time, we began the transition to operational data collection and processing,” says David Yoel, CEO of American Aerospace Technologies Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company that provided the aircraft, sensors and flight team.
Ultimately, Virginia Tech explains, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will decide whether UAS operations for utility inspections have met safety standards. The agency selected Virginia Tech in December 2013 as one of the six FAA UAS test sites in the country. The site is headed by MAAP and includes airspace in Maryland and New Jersey.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has committed more than $2 million in Federal Action Contingency Trust funds to Virginia Tech to operate a UAS test program.
Photo courtesy of American Aerospace Technologies