Thursday, August 15, 2013

Drone company lets pilots know they won't get in the way: Henry County Airport (KPHT), Paris, Tennessee

 Members of the Henry County Airport Committee examine this information sheet about a Savannah drone aircraft site during a safety briefing Wednesday at the airport. 

A company flying drone aircraft in the Savannah area wants pilots flying out of the Henry County Airport to know they’re there.

Dave Daniels, chief of flight safety for the ISR Group, visited the airport Wednesday afternoon for a safety briefing and information session.

The company has operated a 6,200-acre research and development facility 10 miles east of Savannah for the past three years.

There, the company tests unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs — popularly known as drones.

Daniels met with airport officials and one local pilot to brief them about their operation, and how pilots can contact them if they’re in the area.

“That’s our primary concern,” Daniels said. “To make sure we don’t become a hazard to any other aircraft.”

Airport officials included Don Davenport, airport manager; Dell Carter, airport board chairman; and Jackie Jones, board member.

The company, which has operated UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan, uses their Hardin County facility to explore non-military applications for their aircraft.

The company operates six models of UAVs, ranging from hand-launched models to the 400-pound Viking 400, which is capable of reaching altitudes of 4,000 feet above ground level.

Daniels said that among the most-used models are the Shadow Hawk, a camera-equipped helicopter which typically operates 100-400 feet off the ground, and the Scan Eagle, a fixed-wing aircraft with a maximum altitude of 1,500 feet.

Henry County residents won’t be seeing the company’s drones anytime soon, Daniels said. Any test flights the company makes are either over their property, or very close to it.

“We won’t go outside the boundaries of our property unless we have the ability to dead-stick (land) it back to our property,” Daniels said.

Ground observers maintain eye contact with the UAVs, or “birds” as Daniels called them, at all times.

The company also has four control towers, which are manned primarily to look for other aircraft.

The company posts information about flights at Memphis and Jackson airports.

“We just want you to know, more than anything else, that we’re going to stay out of your way,” Daniels said.

“This is not much different than having skydivers in the area,” Davenport said. “In fact, it’s safer.”

Daniels said the Savannah site will become one of the six sites selected by the Federal Aviation Administration as a Congressionally mandated site for testing civilian drone applications.

That decision, which would see the ISR facility grow to about 10,000 acres, will be made in December.

Possible non-military uses for the drones include agricultural, search and rescue, law enforcement, and emergency management applications.

Daniels said the company had been in talks with Mississippi Emergency Management officials about the UAV’s uses after a major hurricane or similar event.

The drones also could be used by the Tennessee Valley Authority to inspect power lines — a job currently being done by manned helicopters.

“It’s a lot cheaper to fly a lot of these little birds than it is a helicopter,” Daniels said.

Pilots who want flight information about the ISR facility near Savannah can call Daniels at 731-438-7591; or Davenport at 644-7933.

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