Drones for Hire

The newest eyes in the sky are drawing the attention of power companies, conservation groups, and the ACLU.

A Florida conservation team uses a Nova, developed by the University of Florida, to help count endangered manatees. (Courtesy Julien Martin)
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Multi-rotors still have a way to go: They’re inefficient in cruise, short on payload, and unable to autorotate to a safe landing if a motor fails. But for simplicity, durability, and ease of modification, they are hard to beat. Michael Achtelik of Ascending Technologies points out that, aside from the mounted camera, the quadcopter has only 12 moving parts: four motors and two bearings per motor.

In Colorado, at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager Ben Miller uses one of DraganFlyer’s smaller versions, the X6, for capturing quick information above crime scenes, accidents, and fires. (The office also has on hand a Falcon fixed-wing drone, suitable for covering more territory during searches for lost hikers in rugged country.) The X6 weighs two pounds, flies at up to 30 mph, and, at about $22,000, costs a fraction of what a new squad car costs. An hour in a manned helicopter can cost 50 to 300 times more than one in the little multi-rotor. One September morning, Miller heard that the Grand Junction Fire Department was fighting a fire at an events center, so he hurried to the location with his X6 and told the incident commander that he’d “brought a helicopter.” The chief looked around for the aircraft, then looked stunned when Miller pulled it from the back of his SUV. The little drone found an active part of the fire that firefighters had missed, and its stack of aerial photographs helped the arson squad later pinpoint the fire’s origin.

Hutt says the USGS experience with drones is similar: They show their greatest worth not in spotting a fire at its outset, when the smoke is easy to see, but in the final, grueling task of stamping out every last ember. In rough country, buried hotspots can be hard to pinpoint, especially when fallen trees or rocks have thrown an insulating cover over them. “One fire in Colorado that they thought was out, wasn’t,” says Hutt. “On a huge fire, mop-up is very labor-intensive. If they had a small unmanned aircraft, handcrews could operate it.”

While rotary drones were being tested over U.S. forests, on the other side of the world a hybrid drone was undergoing one of its first civilian trials. After four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in Japan were catastrophically damaged during the March 2011 earthquake, Tokyo Electric Power Company engineers called for help from above. They needed information about the upper reaches of each reactor building, but because the exposed fuel rods were giving off hazardous gamma radiation, sending in piloted aircraft was out of the question. The task required something that could hover and take images amid gusty coastal winds, and fly around and into the wreckage. It was a job for Honeywell’s RQ-16 T-Hawks, drones about the size of pony beer kegs. The T-Hawk is known as Dusty Bin by military units that have been using it for patrols in Afghanistan and Iraq. (The battlefield drone was named for the tarantula hawk, a vicious wasp that preys on spiders, though the shortened name sounds much more civil.)

The sturdy T-Hawk—a single rotor tucked inside a shroud, plus two stubby protrusions for navigational gear and sensors—can knock into things without flying to pieces. Over three months and 40 missions, the T-Hawks’ sensors, including radiation dosimeters attached with zip-ties, scrutinized the damage at Fukushima. Reactor engineers watched the live video and made on-the-spot suggestions to the drones’ pilots about where to go next. “It was more like operating a [ground robot], with one person to drive and one to look,” recalls Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, who helped coordinate the effort from a crisis headquarters in Tokyo. Using the T-Hawks, the engineers and operators were able to perform assessments out of range of the high-radiation zones.

An important feature of these small drones is their portability; because their range is relatively short, operators need to pack up and move to reach greater distances. Terrence McKenna at the Aurora Flight Sciences booth at the Las Vegas show demonstrated to visitors how the new Skate vertical-takeoff model shifts from flight mode—when it looks like a flying shingle—to backpack mode. To break the Skate down, McKenna removed the two motor pods (attached with magnets), slipped off the vertical stabilizers, pulled loose the battery and nose-mounted electronics pod, and pulled out stiffener rods at the ends of the wing. Then he folded up the wing, made of hinged panels. The whole two-pound machine fits into a sling-pouch of the size used to tote a camping chair. The price for Skate, including ground control equipment, starts at around $35,000.

Before DraganFlyers, T-Hawks, Skates, and their compadres can fly in the United States—beyond a handful of trials and operations requiring waivers—regulations have to be established and the drones themselves have to be improved. The biggest challenge is getting drones to play nice with everything else that’s in the air.

Requirements for collision avoidance gear and rules for flights near airports and beyond the pilot’s line of sight must be established. Today, with few exceptions, drones have to stay five miles from airports. Keeping no-fly zones that large would be a big problem for routine drone use over a city like Seattle, which is spotted with airports, heliports, and seaplane bases. Honolulu officials learned this rule the hard way after the city bought a $75,000 drone to assist with port security, only to be notified by the FAA that this would put it too close to the international airport on Oahu. The aircraft currently sits in storage.

AUVSI attendees in Las Vegas were quite eager, then, to hear University of Alaska’s Greg Walker, director of the Unmanned Aircraft Program, tell them that during a January 2012 fuel shortage in Nome, the FAA granted an airport-proximity exemption for a drone. To prepare for the much-needed arrival of a Russian fuel-oil tanker, state authorities requested permission to fly a Datron Scout multi-copter to photograph sea ice—including at locations within a mile of the city’s busy airport. Just three days after the state’s request, the FAA signed off on it. Alaskan operators offered to set up their prototype ground-based sense-and-avoid system, since the Scout has no sensors aboard it to enable the craft to steer clear of collisions on its own, but the FAA required only automatic radio recordings that notified pilots in the area to keep an eye out for the unpiloted vehicle and increased staff to watch the airspace.

The agency won’t let that deficiency slide forever, though. “If unmanned aircraft had ‘sense and avoid,’ ” says Patrick Currier of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, “the FAA would be that much more willing to open up the airspace.” Drones sold today don’t yet have such smarts. Currier explains that with existing technology, the most autonomy drones get is, after a remote-controlled takeoff, being let loose to fly from one GPS point to another, adapting for crosswinds.

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