Drone use by governments, businesses spikes in Triangle

Meredith Fowler, operations manager for the Raleigh company Geoptic Aerial, recently sent a drone soaring over a new solar farm in northeastern North Carolina to ensure all of the recently installed panels were producing energy.

Carolina Solar Services has used Geoptic Aerial’s services to inspect many of its solar farms since the drone company’s inception a year ago. The unmanned aircraft system’s thermal imaging equipment allows the company to detect any hidden energy losses in a few hours, rather than the days it would take a technician on the ground. A dysfunctional solar panel will radiate heat rather than absorb it and convert it into electricity, Fowler said.

Geoptic Aerial is part of a growing number of companies and government agencies using drones in North Carolina since the Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules for non-hobbyist use of the technology last summer. Among the changes, drone pilots can now pass a remote pilot certification test rather than having to get a manned aircraft pilot’s license.

North Carolina registration has since spiked nearly 700 percent. From May 2016 to February 2017, more than 1,150 new commercial drones were registered in North Carolina, bringing the total to 1,319, with 379 of them in the Triangle, according to FAA records.

“I think we are at the very, very beginning of the growth of this industry,’ said Michael Chasen, CEO of Raleigh drone company PrecisionHawk. “I think in the next 10 years, drones are going to be as prevalent as iPhones.”

Drones in the Triangle

More and more companies are integrating drones into their business to save money and improve safety. Local industry leaders are seeing the most activity in the public safety, construction, surveying and mapping and agricultural industries. Drones also are being used in energy, mining, real estate and marketing.

“We used to say that there isn’t an industry out there that can’t use it, except for dentistry,” said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Program at N.C. State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education, or ITRE. “Then sure enough, you get a dad, a quadcopter and a little kid with a loose tooth.” And apparently a long piece of string.

While drones for hobbyists can run under $100, drones equipped for commercial purposes generally range from $5,000 to $60,000 or higher.

Drones can be used to survey or inspect just about anything, including roads, houses, bridges, land, wildlife, livestock or plant health, but their use is often much more sophisticated than simply taking aerial video. Sensors can be attached to the bottom of drones to detect images, temperature, infrared emissions, chemicals and more.

“We can count plants on a farm,” Chasen said. “We can fly over a construction site, and you can get an exactly 3D ... drawing of the building. You can fly over electrical wires to see if they are down.”

Travis Jack, owner of Flyboy Photo and Media, began his company in 2013 with aerial photography, but his offerings have expanded as more people become interested in drones. Now he uses them for mapping, real estate photography, promotional films and inspection of solar farms, power lines and cellphone towers.

“We’ve definitely seen a huge increase in other people doing similar things,” Jack said.

Since the FAA approved the new regulations, more companies are trying to figure out how drones can save them time and money. That is where companies like PrecisionHawk come in.

The commercial drone and data company sets other companies up with drones and the sensors to meet their needs. The drones collect data, and PrecisionHawk software analyzes it to give companies more information. It also helps educate people, particularly in the agricultural industry, about how drones can make their jobs easier and their businesses more efficient.

Lia Reich, PrecisionHawk’s vice president of marketing and communications, said they often visit with farmers east of Raleigh to help them get their hands on the technology to see how it can work for them.

But accidents happen. Snyder said he hears about a drone accident about once a month. One of the most recent was a drone that crashed on the top of the Space Needle in Seattle on New Year’s Eve 2016. Another man in Seattle was recently sentenced to 30 days in jail after a drone he was operating knocked a woman unconscious during Seattle’s 2015 Pride Parade, according to The Seattle Times.

“It’s more of people not having enough hands-on training,” Snyder said. “When you follow your procedures and do everything you’re supposed to do, major risks are not there.”

Evolving regulations

Even now that the regulation has been changed, companies still are somewhat limited in what they can do because of the FAA’s visual line-of-sight rule, which requires that an operator be able to see the drone at all times.

“The line of sight is a little bit limiting when you are on 1,000 acres,” Fowler with Geoptic Aerial said. “You have to be creative about where you put people to keep an eye on a drone.”

Operators can apply for waivers for unusual operations, such as operating at night, beyond line of sight or above 400 feet, according to the FAA. Only three companies in the country – PrecisionHawk, a Los Angeles-based aerial cinematography company and a Fort Worth, Texas-based railway company – have line-of-sight waivers.

PrecisionHawk is providing research to the FAA on the safety of beyond line-of-sight flight. The company has been testing its low-altitude traffic control system, called LATAS, to see how technology can enable more advanced drone operations such as delivering packages and flying over crowds of people.

Snyder expects drones to be able to fly beyond line of sight once the FAA adopts new rules in 24 to 36 months.

“Things are moving fast now,” Snyder said. “It’s just going to continue to grow as the rules expand more and operations open up as the technologies continue to mature.”

Municipal uses

In the meantime, drone use continues to evolve as the technology continues to improve and more people become aware of its capabilities.

The City of Raleigh is well on its way to figuring out how to integrate drones into waste management and planning. The city’s planning department has hired third-party drone operators in the past, but Raleigh doesn’t have a drone of its own yet.

This may change soon. The city’s solid waste department could have its own drone as early as this year. The department has proposed using a drone at the yard waste center to scan the center’s products like mulch, as well as identify erosion and conduct landfill inspections, which generally take employees about two hours to complete without a drone, said Wesley Carter, the planning and development manager. The drone also could be used to create training videos for new equipment operators and code enforcement officers.

ITRE recently conducted an exercise with North Carolina groups, including municipalities and counties, to brainstorm and investigate how drones could have been used after Hurricane Matthew, like assessing flood damage or assisting with search and rescue operations.

Snyder said a drone’s video stream could, in the future, be connected to a 911 system to help first responders or to deliver medical supplies, such as defibrillators, to a scene.

No law enforcement agency in Wake County is using drones yet. But as a former Raleigh police officer, Jack of Flyboy Photo and Media imagines drones could be used to document crime scenes or for more high-risk situations, such as dealing with an armed suspect.

“If you can put a piece of technology in the line of fire and not put a person in it, why would you not want to do that?” he asked. “That’s kind of where I would like to see it go. Use it for things that are going to help make investigations better ... and use it where it can save lives.”

Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon

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