By Jennifer Ferrero, APR

Pilots flying drones generally fly within an operational or planned mission. There are many types of missions in Washington state that are impacting our economy, educational systems, and how work is done. Here are some samples regarding unmanned system missions used statewide with insights from Tom Hagen, a resident expert on unmanned system activities in the state.

  • Infrastructure inspections – Wind turbine inspections are going on in Washington along with power line inspections, including Bonneville Power. Another one is pipeline inspections – a good application for inspection by drone includes “linear infrastructure,” according to Tom Hagen. There are companies using manned aircraft, both rotary (helicopters) and fixed wing, to perform these operations today, but they are expensive and, at times, even dangerous due to flights close to the ground and infrastructure putting humans at risk. Drones, ultimately with airspace access to fly beyond visual-line-of-site of their operators, can do this same work more efficiently and at lower cost without risking operator lives.

  • Real estate / aerial photography – The buzz on real estate drone usage is “pretty pervasive,” said Hagen. There was a conference in Spokane a year ago that focused specifically on drone use in the real estate industry – both interior and exterior applications. “The reason it is happening now is that there are fairly low barriers to entry. The camera technology, even on small drones, is very good quality,” said Hagen.

  • Precision agriculture – This has been forecast as the big market space for the commercial use of drones. Although real estate and insurance claim use have been more popular, this one is growing. The use of drones along with other robotics in agriculture enables farmers to collect data on everything from plant density, to animal and insect pests, overall plant health related to water, fertilizers – “this is great information for farmers, agronomists, crop insurers, scientists, etc…,” said Hagen. It also helps farmers better manage water and applications of chemicals, conserving resources, avoiding some of the current toxic runoff issues while still preserving or increasing crop yields. Hagen said, “With improvements to farming technologies through this precision agriculture approach, there is potential for big cost savings in a variety of areas in addition to increased production efficiency. If you can do this faster with unmanned systems, it is a vital economic benefit as the world’s population expands and arable land holds steady or declines.”

  • Insurance claims – Historically insurance adjusters have struggled to assess infrastructure damage in the immediate aftermath of storms and other disasters. The advent of drone technology allows adjusters to use drones as a tool to quickly fly over an affected area instead of the adjusters having to laboriously assess the area in their vehicle or on foot. This provides an earlier assessment of the damage to broad areas as well as to specific infrastructure and features. This works very well in the aftermath of hurricanes, with wildfires, and other natural disasters. “It is becoming a common tool for insurance agencies and helps to prioritize claimants who need various levels of assistance following catastrophic events,” said Hagen.

  • Research and development – According to Hagen, the University of Washington has a leading-edge program that investigates the practical applications of autonomous systems. Dr. Christopher Lum is Director of the Autonomous Flight Systems Laboratory at UW where the research focuses on various unmanned aerial systems technologies such as coordinated multi-vehicle searching, GPS-denied navigation, formation flight of swarms of vehicles, risk assessment of UAS operations, collision avoidance/de-conflict, precision agriculture, aerial mapping, using optical information to augment autopilot control algorithms, and integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System. Researchers evaluate the operational environments and missions – farming or infrastructure – for example, and they collect data on the employment of unmanned systems to see what works and what doesn’t work in areas as varied as flight path planning to how we augment humans and the application of chemicals to crops. “For example,” Hagen said, “when flying an unmanned aircraft over the varying terrain of vineyards or fields, drones may have an advantage over manned aircraft from both an accessibility as well as a cost standpoint.” Drones don’t necessarily replace humans or technologies in this space, but they can augment and lower the costs on some types of jobs. “How can we incorporate drone technology, such as with better navigation in a GPS-denied environment like a mine-shaft?” said Hagen. Research is ongoing in all these areas and he added this even extends into materials research and what types of drones work better in certain industries – R & D is a way to find this out.

  • Search and Rescue – This is a great tool for search and rescue authorities to have a properly equipped small drone with an infrared camera to help save lives such as lost hikers/campers in remote terrain or a disoriented elderly person who has wandered off. This is much less expensive and often timelier than calling out a helicopter or other aircraft to do the job. “Having this capability on site quickly could mean the difference between life or death,” said Hagen.

  • Resource management – The U.S. Department of the Interior has an Office of Aviation Services that has both their own drones and contracted drones for a variety of missions they perform in managing millions of acres of our nation’s resources. Under their coordination, drones have been used extensively in many of the recent western wildfires, including to survey fire progress at night when manned aircraft do not fly. This enables them to deploy response teams on the ground to high priority locations first thing in the morning instead of waiting for manned aerial reconnaissance of the impacted areas. This was specifically done by Insitu flying their ScanEagles at night launched and recovered from their corporate location in Bingen, WA during the 2017 Eagle Creek fire that raged in the Columbia Gorge. In addition, drones are being used in herd management on land (e.g. elk, moose, etc.) as well as in ocean applications to study marine animal behaviors.

  • Package delivery – There’s a lot of activity in this area – Amazon, FedEx, UPS, – “they hold their cards close,” said Hagen. Many are still in a research mode. Their activities to deliver packages the “last mile” are very closely linked to safe, and disciplined air traffic management solutions for operations in the low altitude environment. Work is ongoing in this area and operations will likely start in rural areas with more accessible airspace with less traffic density in the very near term.

  • Urban Mobility – Hagen shared that Airbus is performing flight testing at the Pendleton, OR UAS Test Range with their Vahanna concept aircraft to provide uber-style transportation services with unmanned aircraft systems. Several companies are looking at this market as the evolution of transportation in congested urban areas. This work will continue to accelerate as technology and the regulatory environment mature, but there already are planned flights in other nations within the next two years.

  • Mining – Drones can be used for volumetric analysis to monitor stockpiles, map new areas for exploration and to track equipment – all accomplished using compact, high resolution sensors on small unmanned aircraft. Additionally, these drones have the potential to capture 3D spatial data in hard-to-reach underground areas in mines and thereby remove many risks and safety concerns for humans.

  • Media coverage – An FAA Pathfinder program led by CNN has explored the employment of drones in news coverage. Organic to a news team in the field, drones permit a much more rapid response than manned aircraft to news developments as well as permitting the unique perspective not available via terrestrial camera coverage. “Of course, safety is the primary issue for the FAA and, in particular, the issue of flights over assemblies of people, currently only permitted with a special waiver from the FAA,” according to Hagen. “This is mitigated somewhat in the Pathfinder program by flying a small (15-inch square) quad-copter drone made of lightweight materials and shrouded propellers for safety should an incident occur.”

  • First responder support – Equally applicable to firefighters, police, EMTs and others, Washington State Patrol has packaged small UAS for carriage in the trunks of their patrol cars. These are used to fly over traffic accidents on Washington’s highways and have reduced the time for traffic investigations by as much as 60%.

  • Security – Drones have been used for general security applications for large industrial or corporate complexes, infrastructure security with dams, powerplants, water treatment facilities as well as to monitor activity at major sports events like super bowls and other large assemblies of people.

Tom Hagen contributed to this story.