Student Veteran builds Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to study Starlings

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On Friday, February 28, 2014, Scott Davis, conducted a successful test flight of his unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) known as an Octocopter.  Braving the cold winter weather and constant wind chill, he was able to effectively conduct a pre-scientific study airborne dry-run over the University campus, where his UAV reached a vertical altitude of 170 meters and a horizontal speed of 40 miles per hour.

Davis, a Sailor in the United States Navy and student at Rutgers University in Camden, has more than four thousand dollars and six hundred hours invested in the Octocopter.  The device, which is currently the largest remote-controlled Octocopter in the world, stands at 1.6 meters across, was built utilizing eight fixed-pitch tinseled carbon fiber blades and has a maximum load carry of 48 pounds.

It has a maximum altitude is 36,000 feet with a horizontal maximum range of 18 miles.  The device has a stop/go speed that can reach 0 to 65 miles per hour in 3 seconds and can climb to an altitude of 1,986 feet in 4.2 seconds.

The primary purpose for this academic science major’s UAV is to study flocks of birds and their migration patterns in the United States.  More specifically, Davis wants to study flocks of predatory Starling birds which are currently wreaking havoc on crops and wildlife across the country.

Starlings, which are said to have been introduced to North America in the 1890’s, are estimated to now number more than 150 million, and occupy an area from Alaska to Central America.

Starlings are currently responsible for transmitting many bacteria and parasites which in turn are killing off livestock and ruining milk and dairy products on farms throughout the nation.  So far, damage from Starlings to crops has been estimated at over 300 million dollars and can cost the government up to 60,000 dollars a day.  This has led to an overreliance of farmers using antibiotics in their livestock to fight these bacteria and parasites, which in turn is being consumed by the everyday American.

They are also responsible for the most deadly bird strikes on the industry of aviation technology.  In 1960 a flock of Starlings were responsible for badly damaging the engines of a plane that killed 62 and in 1996 Starling flocks caused a military plane crash that killed 34.

The Octocopter will allow Davis and scientists alike to fly directly alongside of Starling flocks in order to determine migratory pattern rules and flight patterns.  This is important because many birds fly in V-shaped patterns however Starlings fly in sphere-like formations where they constantly expand and contract their shape seemingly without a leader.

Flying alongside of these birds will also give the science community a better understanding of the behavior and environmental patterns of Starlings and may give an advantage in figuring out how to best fight the diseases and parasites that they carry and transmit.

Current studies on Starling flocks have been expensive and time consuming leaving scientists with very little data to study on how these flocks of bird effect the environment.  With this Octocopter, Davis will gather real-time in depth volumetric data on these flocks of birds, at a much more reduced cost than previous studies up to this point.

“Bio-physicists in Rome have been studying flocks of European Starlings from static mounted cameras.  This process has taken them over five years and has cost a great deal of time and money.  With my device, the scientific community can now collect the same amount of data in under a week at a much lower cost.  This is important because the more we understand the behaviors and flight patterns of Starlings, the better the scientific community will be at saving the livestock and resources that are being damaged,” said Davis.

No stranger to the realities of this innovative piece of technology, Davis posits that although this device was not designed for military or law enforcement usage, the Octocopter does have real world implications that can save lives and possibly combat climate change.

“This device has high definition, global positioning (GPS), calculates azimuths, contains infrared capabilities and exhibits outstanding night vision capabilities which can help aid in the search for people who become lost or stranded.  Another implication of this Octocopter is that by studying migratory patterns of birds, we may have a deeper understanding of changes to the earth’s climate.  Climate change directly impacts when birds fly north to south along flyways between breeding and wintering grounds,” said Davis.

For right now, the Rutgers student remains focused on his primary mission of studying Starlings.  He and his device have been recognized and sought after by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA in Boulder, Colorado has offered Davis his first mission with the Octocopter which will be to study flocks of Starling birds on their external animal research facility.  At this facility, flocks of Starlings can number over 15,000 at a time.  Davis looks forward to this mission, appreciates being recognized by the USDA and welcomes the opportunity to make his contribution and mark on the scientific community.

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