Under cloudless skies in Ontario recently, Headwall achieved a very notable milestone: we became the first to fly both hyperspectral and LiDAR aboard a small, fully integrated handheld UAS. The test flights not only verified the reliable airworthiness of the system but also the ability to collect valuable hyperspectral and LiDAR data in real time.
Integration is key, because all of this specialized data-collecting instrumentation needs to fit the payload parameters with respect to size and weight. With UAS systems shrinking in size and weight, payloads need to follow suit. As prime contractor for this complete airborne system, Headwall is able to get end-users up and running quicker than ever. Time to deployment is reduced by months thanks to the work Headwall is doing to engineer optimized solutions that meet specific remote-sensing needs.
“The variety of applications for this type of integrated airborne system are numerous,” said Headwall CEO David Bannon. “Precision agriculture is a key one we’re seeing on a global scale, but geology, pipeline inspection, environmental research, pollution analysis are others.” Today’s UAS is smaller, lighter, and more affordable than ever, which makes it a perfect platform from which to carry precise imaging instruments such as hyperspectral and LiDAR. “We’ve always been a pioneer in the area of small hyperspectral sensors for just these kind of deployments,” noted Bannon. “Our strength comes from understanding what our users want to do and then engineering a complete airborne solution that meets that need.”
Chris Van Veen, marketing manager at Headwall, was on site to record and document the test flights. “A fully integrated package like this represents a new frontier for remote-sensing scientists who now have an airborne research platform that goes wherever they do,” says Chris. “Watching this fly and collect data in Canada was a thrill because it was visible testimony to all our integration work.”
The entire payload aboard this particular UAS is less than ten pounds, which includes hyperspectral, GPS/IMU, LiDAR, and computing hardware. Besides making sure these elements are small and light enough, the challenge of integrating everything with an eye toward battery lifetime is also Headwall’s to manage. “We know our remote-sensing users have very important work to do, and they need sufficient power not only to fly but also to operate the instruments,” said Bannon. One way to meet this challenge head-on is to make sure the hyperspectral sensor provides a very wide field of view with precise imagery from one edge to the other. “If you can assure outstanding image-collection across a wide field of view, and then provide orthorectification of that data, you’re covering more ground for each flight swath.”
Fundamental to accomplishing this is Headwall’s approach to optics, which is both simple and elegant. “Our diffractive optics approach uses no moving parts, which, in an airborne application, means robustness and reliability,” said Bannon. Inside each Micro-Hyperspec sensor is a precise and small holographic diffraction grating that manages incoming light with exceptional fidelity. These sensors are ‘tuned’ for the spectral range of interest to the user. “Depending on what the user wants to ‘see,’ he may need a VNIR sensor that operates from 380-1000 nanometers,” said Bannon. The spectral signature of a certain disease condition on a crop tree will determine the spectral range of the sensor, for example. Headwall has also introduced a wideband VNIR-SWIR sensor package that covers from 400-2500 nanometers. This co-registered hyperspectral instrument will be very popular with users who need broad coverage but need a small, light, and affordable instrument to do it with.
The following video will give you a peek into how flight testing went in Ontario.