Drones rules make fault finding a difficult feat


Chelsea Scott and Ramón Arrowsmith, like many seismic scientists, track down the loopholes. As tectonics researchers at Arizona State University, they need to know where a fault is, how far it has moved, and how it behaves below the surface. Small unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, provide them with high-resolution photographs that capture the necessary information at centimeter scale, a resolution higher than that of some commonly used and easily accessible satellite or airborne data sets.

However, collecting data from drones along a fault is not a simple task.

More is better

A 7.0-magnitude earthquake can produce a 100-kilometer-long rupture with surface displacements of up to 1 meter (3 feet), said Black-smith. “You must have a ruler good enough to measure [that]He said, which images collected from drones can easily provide. The problem, he said, quickly covers a 62-mile stretch. Almost all countries that regulate drone operations recommend or require pilots to maintain eye contact with their drone.

One way to get around the problem is to use a bigger drone. Heavy, cheap quadcopters – helicopters that can easily take off and land – are small compared to light and expensive fixed-wing drones that look like tiny airplanes.

In February 2020, Scott and three colleagues spent almost 4 days mapping 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the San Andreas fault in Southern California. Although they have quadcopters, Scott said that “the workhorse was the fixed-wing drone.”

“Because fixed-wing drones are so expensive, the flight planning is done very, very carefully, and unfortunately the project is over if the drone crashes. “

The average quadcopter can be spotted about half a mile (0.8 kilometers) away; Mapping long linear features such as faults requires landing the drone, moving to a new location, and relaunching it multiple times, Scott said. With a fixed-wing drone, the bigger the better; a person dedicated to keeping an eye on the drone can see the vehicle about three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) away on a clear day.

Plus, because quadcopters are so heavy, they usually can only handle about 15 minutes of data acquisition, whereas a fixed-wing drone can hover for almost an hour, Scott said.

Launching and landing fixed-wing drones requires the operator to have sufficient space, Scott said. In particular, landing requires about 100 feet (30 meters) of a makeshift runway clear of all obstacles, including rocks larger than gravel. Because fixed-wing drones are so expensive, she said, “the flight planning is done very, very carefully, and unfortunately the project is over if the drone crashes.”

Lax laws, strict statutes

“If you are deploying a drone to another country, you should be aware of what [its] the rules are, ”said Jean-Francois Smekens, a volcanologist at the University of Oxford who works on drone campaigns. Some countries have fewer regulations and a lot of flexibility, while countries like the United States have more stringent guidelines, he said.

Two months of chasing fault escarpments in Kyrgyzstan with quadcopters went well for Ian pierce, earthquake specialist at the University of Oxford. He and his collaborators at the Kyrgyzstan Institute of Seismology worked closely with the government to collect data to produce high-resolution topographic models. With this data, they can more easily map the faults that spliced ​​the country.

Not knowing the rules and regulations of other countries can cause problems, said Arrowsmith, who briefly joined Pierce in Kyrgyzstan. “[Working] in close collaboration with our colleagues [ensures] that we are operating with the right supervision.

Pierce agreed. “Working with local government collaborators,” he said, the military often waved his team through an area or even helped with work. In addition to the beauty and flaws of Kyrgyzstan, Pierce said, one of the reasons he chose to work there was the ease of doing this type of research.

Size issues, collaborative solutions

In the United States, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) License Part 107 Allows commercial drone pilots (the category university researchers fall into) to operate drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms, including equipment) during the day within sight. This license allows pilots to fly drones up to an altitude of 400 feet (120 meters) above topography or built structures, Scott said.

Many standard drones regulate the height on their own, staying 400 feet below the take-off point, Pierce said. “If the topography is rising rapidly away from you,” he said, “400 feet might not get you [much] above the earth. “

In the United States, to fly above 400 feet, drone operators need a certificate of clearance issued by the FAA, or COA, which outlines the plans and operations for the project, said Henri cathey, Director of FAA Approved Unmanned Air Systems at New Mexico State University (UAS NMSU) Flight test site, one of the Seven such locations.

“Many scientific questions are still beyond the line of sight. “

Under the COAs of the New Mexico site, Cathey said, “we need some knowledge and some training for our pilots.” All the pilots on this site not only have their Part 107 license, but they also have their private pilot license, he said.

To fly above 400 feet, said Cathey, “we have a COA that allows us to fly anywhere in the United States up to 1,200 feet (366 meters)”. They also have 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers) of COA airspace in southern New Mexico in which their pilots can fly drones up to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), often with aircraft from hunting and prior coordination with air traffic control. An agreement with Spaceport America also allows them to fly from the ground to space in the neighborhood White Sands missile range.

Researchers from industry, academia and the federal government pay to use the NMSU UAS flight test site, with each group “generally trying to do something.” [with drones] it’s never been done before, ”Cathey said. One of the goals of these FAA sites is to help provide flight data to the FAA as needs change, he said. Night operations, beyond line-of-sight flights, parcel delivery, and the technologies that help aircraft detect and avoid each other are all part of the story. The FAA Roadmap charting the future of drones in the United States.

Regulations that evolve with technology will be welcomed by researchers. “A lot of scientific questions are still beyond the line of sight,” Arrowsmith said.

—Alka Tripathy-Lang (@DrAlkaTrip), science writer

Quote: Tripathy-Lang, A. (2021), drone rules make it difficult to find faults, Éos, 102 years old, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO210537. Posted on October 6, 2021.
Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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