We see them on television delivering air strikes, we see them at events with mounted cameras, we see children playing with them in our neighborhoods. These Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drones as they are more colloquially known, are fast becoming a fact of life not only in the world, but in Northwest Florida, as well. Decreasing costs have led to their ubiquity, their ease of use has created an entire hobbyist subculture, and their multitude of applications are transforming the business model of many local industries.
Among these applications are aerial photography and video, building and construction inspections, agricultural inspections, storm damage assessment, aerial site surveys, 3D mapping, wildlife migration tracking, search and rescue, and more. While there are still grey areas from a legislative and regulatory standpoint, most commercial drone use requires an FAA 333 Exemption. As an example of just how much the drone industry has exploded in Northwest Florida, there was just one such exemption in the area just a few years ago; today, there are 25.
Drones are not just revolutionizing the business world, either. More than 800,000 drones were sold for hobby usage this past holiday season. Many casual-use UASs can be purchased for less than $250, while most commercial-application pieces are available for under $1,000.
One of the first organizations to exploit this new market in Northwest Florida was Pelican Drones. They are FAA-certified and are setting the pace for many competitors also hoping to break into this brave new world.
“We saw a market that could benefit from visual storytelling and decided to help tell that story,” said Alan Gray, co-owner of Pelican Drones. “We started with real estate and boat photography and people were blown away. If you live here, you may think this is the most gorgeous place on earth, but trust me: you don’t know just how beautiful it is until you see it from the air.”
Gray and fellow co-owner Chris Tonn quickly realized how much this might change a variety of businesses in the region. They were the first between Tallahassee and New Orleans to procure a commercial license for drone use.
“When you get up in the sky with a 5K or 1080p camera, the amount of clarity is astounding,” said Tonn. “You can see specific landscape breaks, you can see depth changes under the water; essentially, you can show people something they’ve seen a million times, but from a perspective they’ve never seen before.”
Gray and Tonn have integrated their drone-flying acumen with technology that already exists in areas outside photography. From the comfort of the ground, they can pilot a quadcopter drone over terrain, the camera can take multiple photos and stitch them together to create a 3D model complete with height and texture. A pilot and assistant can deliver life-saving blood, defibrillation equipment or medicine to storm-stricken areas where crews may be unable to drive to and helicopters may be ill-equipped to reach. A lifeguard can pilot a buoy or flotation device out to someone who is drowning offshore. Someone deep in the wilderness who is bitten by a poisonous snake can order an emergency anti-venom transport. A delivery service can bring you, via drone, an item you ordered just moments ago, as long as you have an RFID-landing pad and obstruction-free airspace. Drones are already changing the world.
Fortunately, there are a number of safety measures in place to ensure against widespread destruction or invasion of privacy. It is illegal to fly a drone above 400 feet, or within five miles of an airport, or at night. Commercial and hobby drone-enthusiasts are also not allowed to fly above people or above national parks, or fly without a spotter in urban areas. The drone weight plus payload and fuel must also not exceed 55 pounds.
Many of these regulations are built into the drone’s firmware. Every device comes equipped with GPS monitoring and a computer that is programmed to not fly where it is not allowed. This computer also compels the device to fly “home” when the battery is too low or conditions are averse to flying.
The software is adaptive, too. If a signal is lost, the drone automatically returns home. If the drone senses a low-flying priority vehicle, like a medevac helicopter, it knows to avoid that airspace.
“The industry is really regulating themselves through advanced software and geo-fencing,” said Gray.
Pelican Drones and other commercial drone companies can sometimes skirt these restrictions by shooting national parks and people from an oblique angle, or requesting an FAA exemption if they are under contract to monitor something that would be otherwise restricted.
Right now, most drones fly between 30 and 60 mph, though some competitive racing drones can fly over 100 mph. That means the UAS can fly in winds of about that speed, making storm-time emergency delivery that much more viable. While battery life is still a concern for many devices (most batteries last just 17 to 22 minutes in perfect flying condition), much headway has been made to give them a longer lifespan.
Drones operate in an extremely complicated yet seamless way. Much like a helicopter, drones generate lift by using rotors to transfer above air beneath them. With multiple rotors, UASs can achieve stability and a system of fail-safes to ensure safety, ease of operation and smooth flying. Controllers, which often come in the form of app-installed iPads, communicate with the drone via 2.4 gigahertz radio waves. Drones are installed with a variety of orientation equipment, including a downward-facing sonar that bounces sound waves off the ground to vertically acclimate itself.
The world of drones is a new and exciting one, to be sure, and one that is not without concerns of safety and privacy. Fortunately, the companies that manufacture these life-changing devices are doing all they can to placate fears and guarantee that this new innovation improves our lives instead of destroying them.