For better or worse, drone aircraft are coming to airspace near you.
Recent headlines highlighted some amazing and odd uses for unmanned aerial systems. Just this week the U.S. Air Force managed to fly an F-16 Falcon fighter jet unmanned, essentially turning the sophisticated warplane into a drone.
NASA has for years used variants of the military’s Predator drone for scientific research. The U.S. Department of Defense also authorized the California National Guard’s use of a Predator for monitoring efforts around the Rim Fire in August.
On the bizarre side are stories about drones delivering tacos or burritos, or even following children as they walk to school.
Unmanned aircraft, especially those capable of hovering in place or carrying payloads, catch attention. Brook Briggs with Sandy-based Saxton Horne Communications anticipates marketers putting that to use in advertising.
“They’ve been doing a lot more of them in Europe, I think, than they have in the U.S. but it’s starting to catch on here,” he said.
Last spring, Paramount Pictures used a group of light-equipped quad-copters flying in formation to form the Star Trek logo near London’s Tower Bridge. It was part of a promotion for the film ”Star Trek: Into Darkness.”
Photography: Most popular hobby use
The most common hobby use of unmanned aerial systems right now seems to be airborne photography or videography. Adrenaline RC Hobbies in Riverton caters to those interests. Adrenaline manager Jonathan McBride heard from his customers about their experiences.
“People doing some really neat stuff out there,” he said. “I mean, going backpacking and taking it up the side of a hill and getting some great video and shots. Being out in the Uintas or up in wherever. I mean, fantastic. How neat is that?”
The same capabilities that lure movie-makers to unmanned aircraft could in the future save lives. Many models have the capability of transmitting a video feed to a remote location. McBride said he once helped search and rescuers near Washington Terrace locate a missing child.
“I took it down there, flew it back and forth along there and spotted the kid. I had 15 search and rescue guys, two down the hill and the rest of them at the top of the hill were around my screen,” McBride said.
Drones have developed a bad reputation among many due to their association with foreign missile strikes, but Utah Valley University Aviation and Public Services Dean Wayne Dornan expects unmanned aircraft to prove their worth in live-saving tasks. Ski patrollers could place beacons on small drones and fly them over avalanches in search of buried victims.
“That’s a perfect application for a UAS. People say ‘Well, if you use that for rescue then you’re going to be putting these people out of jobs’. No, not at all. We’re just going to cut down dramatically on the amount of time it takes to find the person,” he said.
Police investigating auto crashes could also improve the accuracy of photo-reconstruction work. Airborne photogrammetry would give investigators a bird’s-eye view.
“How about going over the scene of an accident and getting pictures of the area? Instead of having to wait three, four days to get that, they can get that instantaneously,” he said.
Dornan equates the current state of drone development to the state of aviation immediately after Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first manned flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on December 17, 1903.
“We see it adding so much to the economy. Just in the state of Utah there are going to be tens of thousands of new jobs that will be created by this, billions of new dollars infused into our economy, only because of all the applications that can be done,” he said.
Precision agriculture uses
Perhaps the most lucrative of those applications is what experts like Dornan call precision agriculture.
“They have UASs now with infrared cameras that can go and survey a citrus crop and determine within hours when that particular area should be harvested. So what that means is no waste,” Dornan said.
Utah State University has spent several years developing its own autonomous airborne survey system, dubbed Aggie Air. USU Research Engineer Austin Jensen said the flight aspect of the project is the easy part.
“To just go shoot some video, that’s cool don’t get me wrong, I mean that’s fun,” he said. “But that’s not why we’re here, that’s not what we’re doing.”
Jensen believes the work on the ground will prove why Aggie Air could mean big gains for farmers. The craft can take off and land autonomously. During flights, a set of sensors capture information about conditions on the ground.
“We’ve done some projects with agriculture, collecting data over fields. Not just to look at it, but rather to gather information about soil moisture, evapotranspiration, chlorophyll content, nitrogen, fertilizer, that kind of thing,” he said.
That information allows farmers to make critical decisions about where and when to fertilize, plant or water. Jensen said the improvements might only equate to cents per acre. When practiced over thousands of acres though, he expects they’ll translate to big dollars.
Reductions in agricultural watering might also prove critical during periods of drought.
“To most businesses, water more efficiently means increased yield,” Jensen said. “It’s not the case right now but in the future water more efficiently might mean save water.”
While drones are not yet saving Utahns water, they are already replacing helicopters for some specialized tasks.
On Thursday night, Jonathan McBride used one of his multi-bladed copters to drop the game ball at Northridge High School’s homecoming game. He said a Utah Highway Patrol trooper approached him with the idea after noting the UHP helicopter no longer performs that service because of the cost involved.