Sunday, October 12, 2014

Flight to the Future: Drones mark uncharted path into public safety, discovery

Ryan Simmons (from left), creative director of Brand Red Studios, and David Wright, president of Spectrum Education, LLC, listen to Grant Carmichael describe the modifications he made to make his drone more powerful and capable of taking high-quality photos and video. 
(Jeremy Stewart/ 

Creating flight from the slide of a thumb is something more and more people are discovering thanks to the widespread introduction of consumer-level drones.

The use of drones has been discussed — and at times debated — by local government and hobbyists alike as they become more available and accessible.

Whether bought fully functional or built from the ground up, the buzzing, propeller-powered aerial vehicles are finding their hold in the world. Some people in Rome and Floyd County are ready to help them along the way.

David Wright is the president of Spectrum Education, LLC, a local group of specialists who use drones and other materials to teach state-required lesson plans to students.

He said the moment you tell a group of students that their pizza could one day be delivered by a drone, their eyes light up.

“The drones that are out there today are very nice, but they will amount to something in the future,” Wright said. “We’re talking about creating jobs and helping the economy. There are so many applications.”

Outside of the classroom, drones are being used more and more for their capabilities to capture high-end video and photos.

Grant Carmichael works IT security for Floyd Medical Center and started getting into drones through his side business of creating websites for businesses and companies who want videos.

“With drones, you can get aerial footage that you just can’t normally get,” Carmichael said.

Ryan Simmons is the creative director for Rome-based Brand RED Studios. He said his group uses drones to simulate the camera angles they would otherwise have to pay dearly to get.

Carmichael said his interest in drones went from a simple “plug-and-play” basic setup to something much more complicated.

The drone he brought to Darlington School last week for the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Geek Week event started out as a DJI F550 hexacopter.

From there. Carmichael added a propulsion kit, a sturdier frame and propellers, a remote controlled gimbal, and gimbal controls to get the optimum feedback and options for the digital camera it carries.

“The smaller ones are more fun to fly,” Carmichael said. “But this has all of the bells and whistles.”

In all, Carmichael said he has over $5,000 invested into his rig while some of the higher-end commercial units that are utilized by studio movies and commercials can cost upward of $10,000.

“Drones can be very easy to build and control or they can be pretty involved,” Carmichael said. “This one has been challenging at times.”

The governments of Rome and Floyd County have no drones. Tim Herrington, deputy director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency, wants that to change.

A strong storm that downs trees could warrant the use of a drone to fly above the wreckage and determine the extent of the damage. It could also help with the search of a missing person.

According to Herrington, someone can program a drone to fly in a pattern as it records the scene. It would then return to its pilot, who would download the information and direct a search team to a specific point based on the drone’s recording.

“It could actually speed up certain aspects of the search,” Herrington added. “I would love to purchase one. There is a need for them.”

The Rome and Floyd County police departments indicated they have no plans to use drones.

Floyd County officer Jerome Poole said there’s been no discussion in his department about acquiring a drone. He cited cost as one reason county police haven’t examined the technology.

“That’s not anything they’ve talked about and probably wouldn’t talk about,” he added.

Rome Deputy Police Chief Travis Goss also pointed to cost as a reason to eschew the unmanned flying machines.

“There are too many variables,” Goss said. “We’d have to make sure we operated within the Constitution and didn’t violate anyone’s Fourth Amendment rights. We haven’t even discussed the thought of getting one.”

Goss also has concerns about Federal Aviation Administration regulations his department would be required to obey. Those regulations, some of which don’t yet exist, are a big reason Herrington has opted against buying a drone at this time.

FAA officials say they anticipate issuing proposed rules soon for small drones, or what they called unmanned aircraft systems.

A business or government that uses a drone must obtain a certificate of authorization from the FAA. Applications for COAs are made online, and evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

If granted, COAs allow governments to use specified airspace. They may come with other restrictions.

In recent years, drone enthusiasts have worked to regulate the use and operation of drones on their own through the efforts of groups like the Academy of Model Aeronautics and FlySafe training camps and classes.

Spectrum’s Dan Caesar has been to FlySafe events and said the day-and-a-half long classes go over what should and shouldn’t be done while operating drones as well as tips and basics on battery life and camera functionality.

“They go over a little bit of everything,” Caesar said. “They are really leading the industry in operating drones in a safe and responsible manner ahead of the FAA regulations.”

Civilians who fly drones as a hobby need no FAA approval, but must obey the law. The FAA states that drones flown for recreation cannot interfere with manned aircraft and must remain within sight of the operator. Additionally, operators must contact an airport if a drone will be flown within five miles of it.

Hobbyists can buy a drone for about $300 online or in a brick-and-mortar store. Verizon Wireless sells a consumer drone that comes with two cameras — one that faces forward and another that faces down, said Kyle Moniz, advanced solution architect with Verizon Wireless.

Drones for recreation use have a limited battery life and range. Public safety agencies wanting larger drones that can fly farther for longer may have to spend thousands of dollars.

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