With tethered drones soaring arcing and hovering overhead, business and government officials and Delaware Technical Community College students got a close-up look Monday at how the technology of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) could create a new generation of business enterprise in the First State.
DelTech hosted presentations by drone specialists at three of its campuses – in Stanton, Dover and Georgetown – because, President Mark Brainard said, “we believe that drones offer our state a unique opportunity to become a leader in this emerging industry.”
How that industry develops remains unclear, because the Federal Aviation Administration, which has asserted its primacy over airspace nationwide, has yet to develop comprehensive rules governing commercial use of drones. The FAA is expected to issue a draft set of regulations in June.
While many states have debated legislation regulating the use of drones, and 20 actually passed new laws last year, Delaware has not. (The state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has banned the use of drones in state parks unless their operators request and receive a “special use permit.”) But an informal working group, organized by Joshua Harris, aeronautics coordinator at the state Department of Transportation, is trying to develop a consensus on the direction the state should take once the FAA standards are promulgated.
There are privacy and safety concerns to consider, as well as the potential economic impact of drones, he said.
At DelTech, Shyam R. Chidamber, a business professor at American University and “chief evangelist” for Flirtey Technology, a drone delivery service based in Australia, listed a series of potential uses for drones, or “flying robots,” as he likes to call them.
In agriculture, cameras mounted on drones can help farmers determine precisely where they need to apply fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides to their crops, he said. In Japan, he said, 40 percent of the rice crop is produced in fields that rely on such “precision farming,” which has resulted in a 15 percent increase in production.
Drones “could make family farming feasible again,” he said.
Emergency service providers could use drones to deliver medications and other supplies to people trapped in remote areas or to locations inaccessible by ground transportation when a disaster strikes, Chidamber said.
Filmmakers have already seen the value of drones, with the entire opening scene of the movie “Skyfall” shot by drone-mounted cameras, he said.
He also quoted actress Julie Andrews as saying that the opening scene of her 1965 classic, “The Sound of Music,” which took about a month to get right using helicopters, could have been completed in as little as a half-hour had drone technology been available a half-century ago.
Brainard cited other potential commercial uses of drones, including the inspection of bridges and rail and power lines.
“It is clear that drones will become a central point of many businesses,” said Kyle Ryan, a partner in the Lewes-based Ryan Media Lab.
Mark Ryan, founder and CEO of the family-owned startup, said that the news media recognizes the value of drones in the coverage of some stories. “Audiences want live view [of events] and control over that view from the sky,” which may become possible with the development of a new generation of drone-mounted cameras.
The Ryans demonstrated the use of tethers, which they say eliminates the risk of drones drifting into restricted airspace or becoming an “angry bird” and refusing to follow their operator’s instructions.
The tether – a high-strength, deep sea fishing line attached to a motorized winch – enables the drone to maintain the FAA-required 500 feet of separation from other aircraft while “getting as close as possible to the subject and ensuring that it will not fly away,” Kyle Ryan said.
Recent advances in drone technology, Chidamber said, parallels other technological advances of the past half-century. As one example, he noted that “each button on a smart phone has more computing power than NASA had [in the 1960s] when it sent two people to the moon.”
What has propelled drone development forward, he said, is the simultaneous rapid improvement in the six components technologies of the UAS: avionics, batteries, sensors, materials, data management and global positioning systems (GPS). Not only have these advances made flying robots a reality, but they are leading to creation of devices that will be “safe, efficient and eco-friendly,” he said.
“There have been remarkable changes in technology,” Mark Ryan said, “with all components getting better and cheaper at an extraordinary rate.”
All of these advances have made it harder for the FAA to keep up and develop appropriate regulations, he said. There are currently three categories of users of unmanned aircraft: hobbyists, commercial and original equipment manufacturers, like Boeing, and “the first two categories hardly existed a few years ago.”
Also presenting at the workshop was Cristopher Quick, founder and CEO of RealBotics, which is attempting to develop technology that would allow its members to control linked devices anywhere in the world from their computers or smartphones. As an example, Quick and his wife demonstrated a live connection to a camera mounted on a building in downtown Pittsburgh. As his wife clicked the appropriate buttons, the camera moved up and down, left and right, offering different views of the downtown area, which were then projected via a wireless connection onto a screen inside the Stanton campus gymnasium.
“Imagine a user in a crowd, taking a cellphone and controlling a camera in the sky, to see views that you were never able to see before,” Quick said.
The program gave some in the audience at Stanton fresh ideas on how drones could become a valuable asset to their business.
Melinda McGuigan, director of business development for EDiS Company, the Wilmington-based construction management organization, said that drone-mounted cameras could provide aerial photos and videos that would assist in developing master plans for new projects, and could take project progress photos as well.
Drones could also serve as a valuable security tool, she said.
“People steal copper these days, and they steal building materials too. If a thief sees a drone overhead, even if there’s no camera attached, it may make him think twice,” McGuigan said. “It’s a real home run on that one.”