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Jussi Soukkamaki (left) and Connor Grafius make adjustments to a hyperspectral camera attached to an unmanned aircraft prior to a Monday flight near Hillsboro, N.D. Brandi Jewett/Forum News Service

UAS researchers converge on Hillsboro for testing cameras, software

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- With a shout of "clear," an unmanned aircraft shot up from the gravel road and armed with a camera, floated toward the subject of the day's photoshoot: a utility pole.

As the wind whipped by, the unmanned aircraft held its own and continued taking photographs as its pilot, camera operator and a few onlookers braved temperatures hovering near 20 to observe from the ground.

The Feb. 22 flight was one of many expected to take place near Hillsboro, a small town of about 1,600 people located 40 miles south of the state's reigning hub for unmanned aircraft systems activity, Grand Forks.

Hillsboro may soon earn an aviation reputation of its own as UAS researchers and manufacturers have big plans for the small town and its municipal airport in the upcoming year.

Activity in Hillsboro so far has involved both local and international players, with representatives from firms in Finland and Israel conducting testing or visiting facilities Monday.

"Since we chose Hillsboro, we've started to get together with people to help them understand why it's important to do this research and how that international presence -- they've been doing it for a lot longer than us -- will come into play to help us leapfrog ahead and catch up with the current technology," said Terry Sando, UAS sector senior manager for the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation.

The airport's halfway point between Grand Forks and Fargo is attractive for multiple reasons to researchers, according to Sando.

It falls outside of Class B airspace that surrounds both cities' airports. That airspace faces strict regulation and any aircraft entering it must have permission from an air traffic controller.

The location also is optimal as researchers from both cities can pop in and out as necessary, Sando said.

International interest

Not all of the those present for Monday's camera test flight traveled from Fargo or Grand Forks but instead flew thousands of miles to see it happen.

The hyperspectral camera attached to the unmanned aircraft was developed by Finnish company Rikola Ltd.

CEO Raimo Rikola and Chief Technology Officer Jussi Soukkamaki were among those watching from the ground as a flight crew with Grand Forks-based startup SkySkopes maneuvered the aircraft.

As the aircraft orbited around the pole, the hyperspectral camera took pictures observers hoped would show something the human eye cannot detect with its limited spectrum of vision.

A hyperspectral camera is capable of seeing wavelengths beyond human sight and identify signatures that can differentiate various materials based on how light reflects.

The technology is being applied to crops to detect diseases and nutrient deficiencies, but others hope to use it for inspecting utility poles and other infrastructure to find rot and other defects.

"This can show rust developing, damage to the vertical poles or insulators and other data concerning the distribution of electricity," SkySkopes President Matt Dunlevy said.

Later in the day at the airport, the SkySkopes crew also captured images using a regular digital camera with plans to use them to render a 3-D model of an object.

The crew made several passes over a Cessna 182 owned by Don Hanson, a member of the Hillsboro Municipal Airport Authority. On Tuesday, a preliminary computer rendering resembled the plane as it sat on the tarmac, complete with readable tail number.

The flight also had other significance, according to Dunlevy.

"This was one of the first, if not the first, commercial UAS flight on an airport in the U.S.," he said. "It's the first in Hillsboro, and probably also the first in the state of North Dakota. It was also a flight to show other commercial UAS operators that winter weather should not necessarily deter them from flying."

Research locale

While smaller bouts of equipment testing took place Monday, area researchers are gearing up for a large-scale project set to take off later this spring.

Four representatives of Elbit Systems Ltd. met with test site personnel at the Hillsboro airport Monday to continue planning operations and procedures for the project

Elbit is partnering with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and North Dakota State University to conduct agricultural research with one of the company's unmanned aircraft, the Hermes 450.

A Hermes 450 measures 20 feet long, so a runway is required for it to take off, and Hillsboro's airport provides that, Sando said.

Part of the research will focus on comparing images of crops growing in the research area taken by the Hermes, another small unmanned and a satellite.

The research project still has some hurdles to clear with the Federal Aviation Administration, Sando said he anticipates operations to begin in early May.

Elbit's interest in North Dakota could extend beyond research if conditions are right.

"Elbit has made a long-term commitment that if they can come up with a business practice, they want to take and open up operations in North Dakota," Sando said.