Michael Knapp stood on his porch and watched a remote-control video screen on Monday display images of pigs about 200 yards away and beef cattle about one-third of a mile off in the distance.
The buzz of a drone could faintly be heard at times, coming from the blue sky.
Knapp frequently uses the technology to check on his livestock, which eliminates the need to walk or drive to the area near his barn.
“Now I wish the drone could water them and feed them,” Knapp said with a laugh, “but my cattle are pretty obedient. They follow me around. I do intensive grazing.
“I really specialize in good quality meat, so I raise the cattle and pigs very naturally without artificial steroids or hormones and stuff like that.”
Knapp not only uses drones on his 232-acre Knapp Time Farm in Shade Township, but also teaches classes taken by folks who want to learn for fun or business reasons, such as real estate sales, farming and marketing.
While drones have become trendy in recent years, Knapp has been using them for three decades – since he served in the Army.
“The drones revolutionized technologies in the military because it used to be where you might have a satellite orbit and take a picture, now the drones can stay above and fly a long time, and they can get very good quality full-motion video,” Knapp said. “You have a lot more capability with the drones than you ever imagined. As the drones evolve, you’ll see, I think, a lot of new careers in the drone-related industries.”
Working with drones has been part of his long and accomplished career in technology.
From 1994 to 1999, Knapp, a 1980 West Point graduate with degrees from the University of Southern California and Penn State, worked with NASA through the Army Astronaut Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston. He then served with the Army Space Program Office before retiring in 2001.
“I thought, ‘I’ll never have a job as great as this,’ ” Knapp said about his time with NASA. “I was making the Russian training safe. I was putting a lot of science and experiments on the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. But when I went to the intelligence side, the unmanned side of space, there were technologies I saw that NASA would not see for 20 or 30 years. I dealt a lot with the satellite, spy planes, drones. That was my first exposure to drones.”
He got to work with leaders in aerospace, including Nobel Prize winner Samuel Chao Chung Ting, along with astronauts John Young and Eugene Cernan, who both walked on the Moon, and Franklin Chang-Díaz, who shares the record for most orbital launches from Earth.
“It makes me feel like I was part of a lot of good teams and was able to make a contribution,” Knapp said. “Some of these things were so complicated that they’ve never been done before. It takes a good team of people to come up with ways that you can accomplish things that have never been done before.”
Ideas he contributed to are still being used in space exploration today.
“Some of my products that are up there on the (International) Space Station now are the Microgravity Science Glovebox – I was the astronaut office rep helping develop that – the lab equipment that’s up there, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer,” Knapp said.
“It’s on the International Space Station. And there’s a whole bunch of others. I could go on and on.”
Knapp flew OH-58 and Cobra attack helicopters and spent more than 500 hours training in a Space Shuttle simulator.
He commanded air cavalry pilots who patrolled the Iron Curtain near Czechoslovakia, East Germany, West Germany and Austria during the “anxious” times of the Cold War.
Knapp later became an instructor.
“That was really enjoyable,” Knapp said.
“When you cut the throttle on your engines and the aircraft is screaming out of the sky, those students are very motivated to learn because you’re actually taking the corrective maneuvers to bring your lives back into the cockpit, to save your aircraft and yourselves.”
Following a quarter-century in the military, Knapp returned to the region and worked for Concurrent Technologies Corp., a local defense contractor, where he got to “do a lot of those far-out things with supercomputers and all the crazy technologies right here in Johnstown.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.