Oahu Hawaii

FlightWave Edge™ UAS to Aid Hawaiian Environmental Research

Heather Newman Blog

Hawaii’s heartbeat is still strong but, like the marine life inhabiting its warm Pacific waters, the islands are feeling the effects of human development and climate change. Which is one reason why Josh Levy, Unmanned Aerial Systems Program Coordinator for the Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii (UH), now calls the place home.

“I went to graduate school here and never left,” said Josh, who got his Masters degree in marine biology at UH and resides on the island of Oahu.

Josh is concerned about a variety of environmental issues facing Hawaii’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems, from coral reef bleaching to estuarial health to plastic pollution. At the suggestion of his brother, FlightWave engineer Daniel Levy, Josh is flight testing the Edge™ UAS with an eye toward using it for research missions in and around The Aloha State.

Positive First Impressions
Josh was first introduced to the Edge during a visit to FlightWave back in May, while test flying the aircraft with FlightWave Co-founder and CTO Trent Lukaczyk.

“Trent let me fly one of the finished prototypes, and I loved it,” said Josh. “I’d never flown a fixed-wing before, so I was scared, but it was super easy to fly. I was very pleasantly surprised. I feel very confident that we will be able to use it to its fullest capabilities without a huge learning curve. Trent was flying it around in gusty 25-knot winds, but the drone was totally fine.”

Back in Hawaii, Josh also shared his experiences with the aircraft during an interview with Ted Ralston, UAS program director at the University of Hawaii, for ThinkTech Hawaii’s online show, Where the Drone Leads. Josh said the Edge was very simple and easy to use.

“The reason why this aircraft is so important, is that it’s not a quadrotor and it’s not a fixed wing, it’s both — a hybrid,” he explained to Ralston. “So in that way you can do all the things that both of those types of aircrafts can do essentially at the same time by using one aircraft.”

Josh is actually testing two Edges. He and Ralston run a UAS test range in Hawaii, and are testing the platform and providing FlightWave with feedback, including suggested enhancements to the Edge’s user documentation. They have practiced assembling it in the field, configuring remote control, and running through the brief pre-launch checklist, which Josh found to be “quick and easy to learn.” “The part I was most nervous about was transitioning from multi-copter to fixed-wing mode and vice versa, but it’s literally the flip of a switch. The transition feels totally controlled.”

Easy to Handle
“If you’ve had experience flying quadcopters before, there should be no problem [flying the Edge],” Josh said. “With quadcopters the hardest part is take-off and landing, but with the Edge it’s easy — although it does take practice, because you are going faster and farther with the Edge.”

Josh said the Edge is very similar to a multi-copter in handling and responsiveness. While fixed-wing flight require an operator to pay more attention than when piloting a regular quadcopter, the superior capabilities of the Edge’s fixed-wing design far outweigh the need for a little extra concentration from the operator.

“We completed two days of test flights over land and ocean already and they went very well,” said Josh. “The aircraft performed exactly as expected. It’s doing everything we asked for — long endurance, very stable, very reliable. We had to fly through obstacles to move through the takeoff and landing area, and had no issues with control or response.”

Josh’s biggest demo so far involved flying over the culturally sensitive, 400-year-old fishpond. It’s one of a number of fishponds used centuries ago to provide food for local communities. They fell into disrepair over time, but over the past 20 years people have been putting a lot of effort into restoring these important pieces of Hawaiian culture, and this is one of the only fishponds on the island that’s largely restored. Because of the cultural and environmental sensitivities of the site, Josh’s team had to maintain a small footprint and low noise threshold — which made the Edge a perfect fit.

“We flew for two to three hours and had no issues whatsoever,” he said. “The Edge was very easy to take apart and put together. We had a couple of nose cone swaps for different missions, using one payload for search and rescue and another for mapping. We tested out a new live-streaming nose cone, which worked great as well.”

Monitoring Ecosystem Health
With the test flight over the fishpond behind him, Josh plans to turn next to testing over a larger aquatic area: a marsh near a residential community. “We have not pushed the Edge to its limits yet, because we just needed to get used to it and start setting up a routine flight over this marsh,” he explained. “While we do that, we will be pushing the limits in how long and how far it can fly, and test it in higher wind environments.”

The marsh — which is too large to be covered with a regular quadcopter — presents a suitable challenge for the Edge. The marsh makes for a good environmental research site as well. It was formed as the result of nearby residential construction, which blocked a pre-existing wetland and cut off natural water flow from the ocean.

Derek Esibill, director of the WIRED Program at the Pacific American Foundation, is interested in having Josh use the Edge to support research at the marsh. Esibill wants to launch an investigation into the biogeochemistry and hydrology of Kawainui Estuary, a project that would involve students from Kailua and Kalaheo High Schools, undergraduates from Windward Community College, and possibly University of Hawaii at Mānoa graduate students. The Edge would enable the researchers to map surface water flow through the estuary and invasive plant communities.

“I think getting aerial imagery of the marsh on a routine basis with the Edge would be a huge benefit,” said Josh. “We already went over the area a little bit in one of the test flights, but we’ll be conducting longer endurance flights in the future.”

With Josh’s hopes and plans for helping to monitor and protect the environment of his adopted island home, he is grateful to have the Edge available in Hawaii. “I consider it a game changer,” he said.