Thursday, February 23, 2012

Are those drones over Boise? Yes

BOISE, Idaho (WTW) — Idaho Power Co. fish biologist Phil Groves doesn't want to see any more of his colleagues injured or killed in helicopter crashes while doing research.

So he has embraced technology typically used by the military and hobbyists: drone aircraft.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game frequently surveys salmon nests in streams and tributaries. It's common practice to use planes and helicopters for biologists' annual wildlife counts.

In August 2010, a helicopter chartered by Fish and Game crashed in Downtown Kamiah, killing biologists Larry Barrett and Danielle Schiff and pilot Perry Krinitt.

"It really struck home hard for me," Groves said. "I had flown in that helicopter. I had known Larry Barrett very well. ... Gosh, I had been in that helicopter many times. That could have been me."

To find a safer, more affordable way to count fish nests, Groves used his research skills to find a good alternative. Idaho Power ended up investing about $16,000 in small, maneuverable, remote-controlled aircraft from Germany called Hexakopters.

Groves and his Idaho Power colleagues sometimes test their little aircraft, with red and blue LED lights flashing, in a Garden City field near the Boise River.

"If someone has seen it flying around they'd say 'What the heck is that?' " Groves said.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan die down, technology used by the military is being scaled down, reinvented and adapted for civilian purposes.

That includes remote aircraft, which the Federal Aviation Administration terms unmanned aircraft systems. The rest of the world calls them UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles — or just drones.

The FAA worries about interference with commercial air traffic — and drones don't have technology like airplanes do to help them avoid in-air collisions.

Also, drones come in a huge range of sizes and with varying degrees power and operator abilities. Crashes pose a serious risk to those below, officials say.

So the FAA said it wouldn't allow any but government and hobbyist use of the machines.

But earlier this month, Congress inserted language into an FAA funding bill allowing broader use of drones — after intense lobbying by drone makers and potential customers.

Under the new law, within 90 days the FAA must allow police and first-responders to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they keep them within 400 feet of the ground and meet other requirements. The agency must also allow for "the safe integration" of all kinds of drones into U.S. airspace, including those for commercial uses, by Sept. 30, 2015.

It must also come up with a plan for certifying operators and handling airspace safety issues, among other rules.

The agency probably will not be making privacy rules for drones. Although federal law until now had prohibited drones except for recreational use or for some waiver-specific law-enforcement purposes, the agency had issued only warnings, never penalties, for unauthorized uses, a spokeswoman said.

For drone makers, the change in the law comes at a particularly good time. With the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, where drones have been used to gather intelligence and fire missiles, these manufacturers have been awaiting lucrative new opportunities at home.

The market for drones is valued at $5.9 billion and is expected to double in the next decade, according to industry figures. Drones can cost millions of dollars for the most sophisticated varieties to as little as $300 for one that can be piloted from an iPhone.

"We see a huge potential market," said Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone maker trade group.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently took over a fleet of decommissioned military drones and partners with research organizations for special projects.

One beneficiary of that arrangement was Jennifer Forbey, an associate professor of biology at Boise State University.

In July, Forbey and partners at the USGS and the University of Idaho used drones in the southern Idaho desert east of Magic Reservoir to map the habitat of pygmy rabbits.

A video camera was mounted on a remote-controlled airplane. Previously, Forbey had to map sagebrush from the ground. The rabbits use sagebrush as food and shelter.

"If you walk out there, it would take months," Forbey said. "(The USGS drones) are filling in a big gap."

Meanwhile, Idaho Power's Groves is in a multi-year test of his drones against the traditional helicopter method for counting salmon nests in Idaho waterways with dams.

So far, the data gathered via Hexakopter are right on, Groves said. And no biologists have been hurt or killed in the process.

Groves will admit to a few broken Hexakopter blades when he's crashed the units. But they are easy to fix.

Leo Geis is the owner of Idaho Airships, a Boise aerial photography firm. He'd embraced the drone as a tool until the FAA said no one could use them for commercial use.

"I had some gorgeous Swiss-made helicopters," said Geis, a former air traffic controller. "When the FAA came out with their statement, I sold everything to one guy."

These days, Geis rents helicopters or planes for his photography work.

In inexperienced hands, drones can hurt or kill people, he said. His drones had 5.5-horsepower engines with 6-foot-long blades, he said. He described them as giant food processors, traveling between 30 and 50 mph.

"For a couple thousand bucks or less you can buy something that will kill someone, that has no maintenance regulation, no pilot certification," Geis said. The operators "can have five hours under their belt and try to do this for a living."

One local photographer is doing just that, advertising online the use of drone photos to sell high-end real estate in Eagle, Meridian and Boise. That photographer didn't return calls from the Idaho Statesman.

Less restrictive rules for drones are on the horizon, but that doesn't explain what Boise residents are seeing in their skies.

They could be drones, or could be anything, Geis said.

It's hard to tell the size of moving aircraft from a distance, he said. And Boise police, Meridian police and the Air Force based at Gowen Field say they don't have or use any drones.

The Idaho National Guard base is now sporting a newer, smaller helicopter, Col. Tim Marsano said. And Geis notes that some very tiny helicopters are being used by training schools in the Treasure Valley.

"They are common and they do a lot of work," Geis said. "They could very easily be mistaken for a drone or an unmanned vehicle."

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