by David Murray for Great Falls Tribune
ay the word “drone” and most people will likely think of one of two things: Either sophisticated unmanned aircraft used by the military for surveillance and to launch missile attacks, or the small hobbyist helicopters that have seemed to come into the habit of crashing onto the White House lawn or into one of Yellowstone’s geothermal features.
However drone technology — or unmanned aerial vehicle technology as it is more appropriately referred to — is now poised to make the leap to everyday commercial applications. And the cutting edge of this new technological wave may be as close as your backyard.
Ever more sophisticated and versatile commercial UAVs are being used by the commercial and motion film industry, law enforcement, for oil and gas exploration and scientific research. Already, real estate companies are employing UAVs to scout commercial and residential properties, and online shopping giant Amazon is actively testing its own UAV package-delivery system.
A Domino’s franchise in the United Kingdom has even developed a UAV capable of delivering two pizzas in the company’s signature Heatwave bags.
But perhaps the biggest industry on the threshold of employing UAV technology in a big way is agriculture.
On Friday, one of the presentations at the Montana Winter Fair in Lewistown was on drone technology and its applications for the farm and ranch.
Arthur Cunningham grew up outside Helena and now works as an aviation consultant for the University of Hawaii. He and other researchers and educators are developing a program training students to set up and operate remotely piloted aircraft systems.
The students Cunningham works with have flow more than 400 missions and are using UAVs to create monitor soil erosion and track the likely path of erupting lava from Hawaii’s Mount Klieauea.
Cunningham said the greatest attraction of UAV is how inexpensive they are to operate.
“What’s really appealing about them is cost,” he said. “To fly our small aircraft, the biggest cost for day-to-day operations is getting out to the site.”
In other words, it costs more in gas to drive out to a UAV test site than it does to power it. That’s a huge savings over the cost of hiring a manned helicopter, which can be more than $1,200 an hour.
“The aircraft is electric, so by using the solar panels the university has on its roof, the power that we use is entirely free,” Cunningham said. “Not only is cost a factor, I would say the one I concentrate on most is safety.”
UAVs can fly safely only a few feet off of the ground, and anyone who is familiar with aviation knows that the lower a manned aircraft flies from the ground the less room there is for mistakes.
“Removing the risk of having a pilot have a crash is huge,” Cunningham said.
The possibilities seem nearly limitless.
UAV technology is already being used in Japan, where farmers spray pesticides in hilly areas where tractors might roll over. In the U.S., UAV helicopters are being considered for the steep slopes of California vineyards.
UAVs are also gaining popularity on the ranch, where cowboys use them to locate cattle. UAV manufacturer PrecisionHawk is equipping its drones with thermal imagers capable of taking the temperature of an animal. A technologically savvy cowboy can look at a live, real-time screen and tell if one cow in the herd is running a higher temperature than the ones around her.
“Something else as far as cattle ranching is the ability to do fence-line monitoring,” Cunningham added.
Equipped with special “computer vision” programming, UAVs can report back the precise coordinates of a fence-line break or an open gate.
“To be able to have an automated machine fly over miles and miles of fence, and at the end of the day the program will tell you ‘in grid section Bravo 13 there was a break in the fence,’” Cunningham said. “The rancher can go straight to it and doesn’t have to worry about searching.”
Even more impressive, Cunningham and his team are working to develop systems of precision farming. Using special “near infrared cameras” mounted on a UAV, the students and researchers at the University of Hawaii are capable of differentiating between plants that are healthy from those that are sick or dying.
“What the near infrared camera measures is the reflectant light that a healthy plant gives off,” Cunningham said. “A healthy plant will have a strong reflectance, whereas a plant that is dead won’t reflect at all and will show up as a void.
Farmers flying a UAV over their fields could develop specific programs for the precision delivery of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer where they are needed most — all of which could be done using the same UAV that discovered the problem in the first place. Such technology would save time, money and would promote greater crop yields.
From an engineering standpoint, the biggest limiting factor for drones thus far has been the size, weight and the available charge in their batteries. Most commonly available commercial UAVs are limited to less than a half-an-hour flight time, have a range of less than a mile, and a maximum payload capacity of no more than about 5 pounds.
However the biggest obstacle to the widespread commercial use of UAVs has been opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration. Except for a few limited exemptions, U.S. airspace is closed to all commercial UAV operation.
The agency’s biggest concern is manned aircraft safety. America’s skies are already crowed. The prospect adding tens of thousands of lawnmower size UAVs capable of flying thousands of feet into the air and at up to 100 mph has the potential to pose a serious aviation hazard.
Currently, hobbyists are prohibited from flying UAVs higher than 400 feet or within five miles of an airport. Their use is also prohibited in national parks and over populated areas.
To date, the FAA has granted 12 exemptions to companies working to develop commercial applications for UAVs, and all the operators of these craft are required to be licensed manned aircraft pilots.
However the agency is coming under increasing pressure to liberalize its UAV regulations, and is expected to have new guidelines for the legal use of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles in place by October.
One often-expressed concern about a sudden proliferation of UAVs in America’s skies is the effect it could have on personal privacy. Drones are already capable of providing close-ups and vantage points that satellites and aircraft cannot easily obtain.
The Associated Press recently reported on one documentary filmmaker who used a UAV to fly over large commercial hog operations and film them. He then produced an anti-pork industry video showing buildings filled with animals and huge manure pits. The use of the UAV in this case violated both local trespassing and personal privacy laws.
But Cunningham notes that personal privacy issues will continue to be a concern both in the United States and throughout the world whether or not UAV technology becomes commonplace. Today nearly everyone carries a camera phone with them wherever they go.
How many celebrities, politicians and public officials have been caught doing something they shouldn’t in recent years because somebody made a surreptitious high-quality video of it?
“How much scarier is an unmanned aircraft than a camera phone?” Cunningham asked. “If you’re flying a UAV over a property where you don’t have permission you are trespassing — there’s no question about it. If someone is flying over your property you have every right to call the police. However, there is an emotional response and a deficit of education when it comes to unmanned aircraft.”
As Cunningham sees it, the arrival of UAVs for commercial applications is only a matter of time. He predicts that within 10 years their use will be commonplace.
“There are so many people with their business plan printed and ready to go,” Cunningham said of the dozens of inquiries his department receives each week from people seeking more information on UAV technology. “There are so many investors that are ready to sign checks just as soon as the legislation is in place. The surge that we’re going to get when that legislation is in place is just going to be crazy.
“It’s going to be one hell of a ride,” he added.