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Column by the Chancellor in Hawai‘i Island Chamber of Commerce Newsletter: April 2014

Message from UH Hilo Chancellor Donald O. Straney
Chamber Connection Newsletter
Hawai‘i Island Chamber of Commerce

Meeting Hawai‘i’s natural resource challenges with unmanned aerial vehicles

HICCWe are in the planning stages of a proposed international flight training center and associated aeronautical training program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and Hawai‘i Community College. Among various aeronautical specialties such as piloting aircraft, a major component of the collaborative program involves unmanned aircraft systems, the importance of which I’d like to share with you in this column.

Hawai‘i provides a world-class setting for doing research in ecology, volcanology, marine science, and tropical agriculture. Much of the research requires the repeated collection of fine-scale spatial data. Traditional data collection uses satellite or manned aerial systems, which are lack in resolution or are too expensive to be widely used. On-the-ground field studies provide fine spatial detail, but have very limited coverage and can be extremely expensive and problematic in dangerous, inaccessible or sensitive areas.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) provide a means of overcoming these limitations while generating very large datasets that will revolutionize our ability to meet the natural resource challenges facing Hawai‘i.

UH Hilo’s UAV Research Team is a collaborative group across disciplines — marine science, geology, biology, geography, environmental science, computer science. The researchers combine their expertise in data analytics, informatics, modeling, data integration and visualization in several local projects.

The team is currently looking at early detection of Banana Bunchy Top Virus at Richard Ha’s farm at Hamakua Springs. The applications with UAVs for precision agriculture include collecting imagery to assess crop health, yield prediction, and other factors that may be impacting a farmer’s field. It’s often difficult for a farmer to get an overall idea of how well their crops are doing from just walking the fields. Our researchers have been using a multi-rotor platform UAV to capture the imagery over the banana fields.

Another focus for the research team will be on environmental monitoring. There are a multitude of UAV applications for natural resources from mapping the spread of invasive species to evaluating vegetation health.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration granted a Certificate of Authorization to our UAV Research Team to do flights over native dry forest habitat in Kona. Roughly 90% of native dry forests have been destroyed in Hawai‘i over the last century. The team will be using high-resolution imagery to identify rare endemic plants such as the Wiliwili tree, which will help to better understand how their population numbers are doing and how they might have been impacted by the Gull wasp, for example.

UH Hilo has purchased a small fixed-wing UAV in support of this research. The aircraft will be operated by a two person crew during flight operations, and has a flight endurance of about 30 minutes.

Other projects will look at sediment in the Kawaihae watershed, canopy structure in restored hybrid ecosystems, submarine groundwater plumes in the coastal ocean around Hawai‘i Island, pāhoehoe lava flows, and shoreline analysis in high-risk areas along the Hawai‘i Island coast.

We are looking forward to completing the necessary planning required for the international flight training center and aeronautical training program. The program will prepare students to help address the future needs of our island economy.

UH Hilo views our collaboration with Hawaiʻi Community College as an important component in being able to successfully provide higher education and career options to the people of Hawaiʻi Island.


Don Straney

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