(TNS) — Six propellers roared to life and the drone, without direct pilot guidance, climbed to some 400 feet to capture video of vessels on the Houston Ship Channel and vehicles on Interstate 45. The footage was streamed live to observers' smartphones and a monitor below.
GPS ensured the drone stayed within a 30-foot radius of its starting point, and a tether provided power that could have kept it hovering indefinitely while also ensuring the secure transmission of data. One pilot used a video game controller to direct the camera and another used computer software to determine the drone's height.
But largely, the drone flew itself and automatically compensated for wind, altitude changes and camera motion.
"There's nothing like seeing it with your own eyes," said Tim Crain, vice president of research and development for Intuitive Machines, an engineering think tank that studies the intersection of aerospace, energy and medicine.
Monday was the first time Intuitive Machines demonstrated its new tethered drone technology. The company is marketing the drones for a variety of uses, such as monitoring security at public events, surveying refineries for damage, helping firefighters assess a burning house, and providing Wi-Fi and cellphone service after a major disaster.
The demonstration was given from its new location at the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines is the first tenant in a building that, ideally, will help develop a cluster of aerospace companies near the spaceport.
It was this relationship with the Houston Airport System that ultimately led Intuitive Machines to tethered drones about six months ago.
"We're constantly bothering them, approaching them about what their needs are," Crain said.
The Airport System said it wanted a better surveillance system for airport property. Crain and other executives at Intuitive Machines quickly recognized the possibilities with tethered drones.
"They brought that vision to reality," Arturo Machuca, general manager of Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport, said Monday after the demonstration.
Being tethered, with the cord taut, the drone doesn't go out of control. If it is somehow separated from the power source, there is a backup battery to safely land it.
More important, Crain said, is the analytics portion. Intuitive Machines can provide images, maps and videos. It also has algorithms that scan data for changes, identifying differences such as corrosion or a hole in the fence that wasn't previously there.
Crain is hoping to get customers for the tethered drones by the end of the year. He would love it if the drones were used for security at the Super Bowl, too.
"That'd be a perfect application for it," he said.
Among the observers at Monday's demonstration was Officer Randal Barton of the Houston Police Department. He could see the drone helping law enforcement in a variety of scenarios, such as monitoring crash sites, observing a perimeter and watching traffic. Its infrared option could be useful at night.
"There's unlimited applications," he said.
Beyond commercial uses, the Houston Airport System is ensuring drones are safely operated near airport runways and helipads.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires hobbyists to alert officials any time they fly a drone within 5 miles of the center of an airport or heliport. Until recently, it was unclear how drone operators should contact airports.
The Houston Airport System recently announced its participation in the Digital Notice and Awareness System, or D-NAS, that allows drone operators to tell the airport when they are flying, how high they will fly, their drone registration number and phone number. They can access the system through the AirMap app or by visiting app.airmap.io.
Steve Runge, manager for the safety and emergency management division of the Houston Airport System, said many drone owners don't know about the notification requirements when flying near airports. Having more people aware of the notification system can boost safety.
"We want to avoid any aircraft-drone collisions," Runge said.
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