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The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) at Virginia Tech has completed a test flight of a fixed-wing unmanned aircraft to inspect an energy pipeline route.

The flight, lasting about 90 minutes, covered around 11 miles over a Colonial Pipeline Co. right of way near Fork Union in rural Virginia. The mission was overseen by MAAP at Virginia Tech and supported by the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), a collaborative research arm of the energy pipeline industry.

A piloted chase helicopter followed behind the unmanned aircraft to ensure safety beyond the ground observer’s line of sight. American Aerospace Technologies Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company that creates unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for industry use, provided and piloted the test aircraft: an RS-16, which can be equipped with a special sensor package to identify threats to pipeline integrity.

“This is important because it represents one of the first chase plane flights using a fixed-wing unmanned aircraft system for infrastructure inspections,” comments Rose Mooney, executive director of MAAP, headquartered at Virginia Tech’s Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science.
“We received permission from the FAA to oversee flights of the unmanned aircraft with a chase plane. Chase aircraft observations will provide the FAA and the pipeline industry with a better understanding of UAS flight safety requirements for flights that involve long duration and great distances, such as pipeline inspections,” Mooney explains.

The research is part of PRCI’s Right Of Way Automated Monitoring Project, which is looking at innovative technologies to improve and automate pipeline monitoring in the U.S. and internationally.

The RS-16 aircraft has a wingspan of nearly 13 feet and a 25-pound payload capacity and is capable of flying more than 12 hours before refueling. During future flight tests, the aircraft will be equipped with mapping capabilities and a sophisticated sensor package to detect threats to the pipeline. Organizers say a new round of testing will be under way later this spring.

Virginia Tech, with academic partners Rutgers University and the University of Maryland, operates one of six FAA-approved unmanned aircraft testing programs in the nation.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech

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