Drones Continue to Find Work in Ohio

Beyond the standard public safety applications, drones are increasingly being tasked with new jobs.

by David Patch, The Blade / September 17, 2018
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(TNS) — Paul and Deborah Bach first bought a drone because they wanted to keep an eye on the construction of a pipeline in three parts of their farmland outside Elmore, Ohio.

And while that quickly helped the Bachs identify several areas where construction activity had damaged their field tile, they soon learned of other tasks for which aerial video is useful.

In particular, Mr. Bach has been using his drone to identify parts of his fields with insect damage, “and you can really identify poor stands [of field crops], or if weeds are a problem,” he said.

Farmers are among the fastest to adopt drones to their businesses, but there is an abundance of other uses in both the private and public sectors, said Bruce Chambers, owner of the Drone Store in Fremont, which provides sales, service, and training for the devices known officially by the Federal Aviation Administration as small unmanned aircraft systems.

The Blade is among them, having arranged recently for this reporter to become trained and licensed for commercial drone flight — an FAA requirement for journalists and other types of private business.

Another popular use: real estate. Having an aerial view of a for-sale property has become almost de rigeur for listings, especially at the higher ends of the market.

Mr. Bach now is considering equipping his drone with an infrared camera, which can be used to assess overall plant health in his fields.

“The more you use it, the more you can find different uses” for drones, he said.

Virtually the same words were spoken by Toledo police Lt. Richard Hoover, who as commander of the city department’s special operations division oversees its drone operations, which he said go far beyond the occasional desire to track a fleeing crime suspect.

The police department’s most frequent use for its drones, Lieutenant Hoover said, is to document and map traffic-crash scenes and do some accident-reconstruction work off-site instead of at the scene.

“If I can take pictures and do measurements [with the drone], it lets me open up traffic that much faster,” he said.

The flying cameras have also been deployed for search and rescue efforts, observational support during stand-off situations, scene assessment at fires, and community relations, the lieutenant said.

For searches, he said, a drone can cover much more territory in a given amount of time than can an officer on foot or even in a patrol car. Even if the drone does not itself locate a search’s target, it can rapidly narrow down the area needing to be checked.

For now the police can only use the drone between dawn and dusk, Lieutenant Hoover said, but the department is going through a complex federal procedure toward authorization for nighttime flight.

Drones also have a growing role with highway agencies like the Lucas County Engineer’s Office and the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Mike Pniewski, the county’s chief deputy engineer, said land surveying is one of the primary tasks for which his office expects drones to be useful.

“We can fly an area, take images, and compare what we see to known elevations,” Mr. Pniewski said.

With known objects entered as data, a computer program can then build a detailed topographic map from the drone images, reducing several days’ work in the field to a few hours’ worth of flying.

“It saves us a lot of time and energy, and it’s a lot safer for our workers,” Mr. Pniewski said.

Chad Haskins, who works out of ODOT’s Cleveland district office, said he’s currently that state agency’s only certified drone pilot, but he’s pushing to expand the devices’ use.

For bridge inspections, he said, “it’s a game changer,” in that it allows bridge inspectors to focus on specific problem spots drones help them locate rather than having to look themselves at an entire structure.

“They [inspectors] still have to touch it [a bridge], but I show them where to touch it,” Mr. Haskins said.

While in the Toledo area Thursday, Mr. Haskins flew an ODOT drone over the sites of several future construction projects to get aerial photographs of those sites.

And like Lieutenant Hoover, who said the police department’s drone often pulls assignments for other city of Toledo units, Mr. Haskins said he also does work for other government agencies.

He was quick to note, though, that ODOT is not using drones for surveillance.

“We’re not spying on people. We’re not reading license plates,” Mr. Hankins said.

At the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, a staff member is being trained for a commercial license, but in the meantime Mr. Hankins is flying the $16,000 drone the local port bought in June for a variety of purposes.

Among upcoming tasks for which the port authority’s drone is to be used is inspecting the landmark smokestack at Overland Industrial Park off I-75 in central Toledo, said Todd Audet, the port’s vice president of planning, engineering, and operations.

Flying a preprogrammed pattern, the drone will take an array of close-up photographs that will show where the smokestack needs repair, he said.

Other planned uses include surveys for vegetation and wildlife management, security, and runway inspections at Toledo Express Airport; detailed mapping of “Facility 3,” the port-operated disposal site for disposal of silt dredged from the Maumee River, and aerial photography of port construction sites.

“We’ll be able to inventory all our assets,” Mr. Audet said, noting that with the drone’s 48-megapixel camera, “We’ll be able to pick up every crack, every imperfection” on airport pavements.

And as the technology advances, he said, the nature and detail of tasks suitable for drone applications will only grow.

“A lot of these programs are in their infancy,” Mr. Audet said.

©2018 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.