Working Drones Come with Inherent Potential, Concerns

Mapping and public safety applications are just a couple of the tasks put to drones on a daily basis, but safety and privacy remain issues.

by Leah Thorsen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / September 28, 2018

(TNS) — As restrictions on flying drones have eased in recent years, their use by businesses has expanded.

And expect to see that trend continue — the Federal Aviation Administration predicts the number of commercial drones will grow to 451,800 in 2022 from 110,604 last year, with remote pilots increasing to 301,000 from 73,673 in that same time span.

Engineering firms are among those who say the pilotless aircraft systems have helped them in their work, and representatives from several area companies were among the attendees Wednesday at the first of three panel discussions hosted by St. Louis Downtown Airport and Bi-State Development to explore how the St. Louis region is approaching drone use.

Srikanth Gururajan, a panelist who is an assistant professor at Parks College at St. Louis University in the aerospace and mechanical engineering department, said drones could be compared to a Chevy S-10 pickup.

“It’s a tool to go do something you need to get done,” he said.

The FAA had required companies that wanted to use drones to seek permission from the agency until 2016, when it allowed people to get licenses to fly the devices below 400 feet, among other rules.

“That has opened the field tremendously,” said Lyle Hardin, manager of design technologies at CDG Engineers in St. Louis.

And beginning this year, drone operators can apply to receive a near real-time authorization for operations under 400 feet in controlled airspace around airports through the FAA’s “low altitude authorization and notification capability” program known as LAANC. Hardin said the authorization was much faster and simpler than the former process.

He said drones were especially helpful for aerial surveys to make contour maps, and for doing inventories that can show, for example, how much coal is in a coal yard or the size of a hole excavated in a week — without having to hire an aerial survey company to send up a plane and wait for the data to be processed.

“We have the capability in one day to fly and come back, and usually within the next day we have our map and can use the data,” Hardin said.

He’s the company’s only licensed drone operator, and about four other staff members are studying for their licenses.

Drones also are well-suited to help make property condition assessments that clients, some who are out of town, can easily access by YouTube, said Terry McCreary, senior project manager for G&W Engineering in Maryland Heights.

“We can take video of the entire facade, whether it’s one story or 50 stories,” he said. It’s a cost savings to not have to rent lifts or build scaffolding to get those photos and videos, and the drones can get inside for a detailed look at aspects including electrical service, duct work and lighting.

A local company focuses on helping companies make the best use of their drones. Rory Paul and Jack Beetz founded UAS Holdings, which operates out of the privately owned Shafer Field in the Madison County village of St. Jacob. It trains drone operators to pass a test required for licensing, as well as how to use the devices for the specific needs of their companies, including in mapping or explaining how to use the hardware, Paul said.

He said the drone industry needed to be professionalized with tougher standards and more training.

“You need to take the data and do something useful with it,” he said, predicting that automated flight systems will be large enough to carry passengers and a few hundred pounds of cargo within five to 10 years.

The debate about drones isn’t expected to subside as companies including Amazon and Google keep pushing for approval for drones to deliver packages.

Amazon was issued a patent this year for delivery drones that can react to screaming voices and flailing arms, according to a March report by the Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos.

The Air Line Pilots Association union, which represents nearly 60,000 pilots, has voiced safety concerns about drones in airspace and the danger they pose for midair collisions with planes. Privacy groups also worry about what data is being collected and how it’s being used.

Cities in the St. Louis area have been enacting their own rules to regulate drones and trying to address such concerns, and area police and fire departments also are using drones.

“One of the challenges is educating the public about what we do and don’t do with them,” said Wentzville Police Chief Kurt Frisz, who has 25 years’ experience flying airplanes and helicopters while employed by the St. Louis County police.

His department has 10 licensed drone operators so it’s covered every day, around the clock. The devices aid in assessing damage after a natural disaster such as a tornado, in getting photos of a crime scene or accident reconstruction, searching for a missing person before a helicopter can arrive and even in catching drivers who run stop signs, he said.

He sees more public-safety agencies adding drones and training staff to use them.

Said Frisz: “Not every police and fire department can afford manned aircraft.”

©2018 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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