Saturday, September 09, 2017

This is why Oregon hasn't deployed the SuperTanker to fight Eagle Creek, Chetco fires

A Boeing 747 specially outfitted to drop up to 20,000 gallons of water or retardant on Oregon's wildfires is standing by, ready to travel over two of the nation's most urgent firefighting priorities.

But Gov. Kate Brown and the U.S. Forest Service aren't calling on the SuperTanker to aid in battling the Eagle Creek or Chetco Bar fires. And all of it has to do with the aircraft's limited effectiveness in both the Columbia River Gorge and the mountainous reaches of southern Oregon, officials say.

"If we need to use it, we'll just order it up," Doug Grafe, fire protection chief for the Oregon Department of Forestry. "But the the broken terrain won't allow it."

Strong and unpredictable winds, abetted by the heat of the fires burning in both ends of the state, also make maneuvering the 747 through the mountainous regions difficult enough.

"You need to fly this thing low and slow," Grafe said. "It works really well in open range country. But we just don't have much of that with Chetco or Eagle Creek."

The SuperTanker is also meant to act much like a tank, barreling ahead of an infantry of firefighters and dropping retardant or water so that men and women on the ground can tackle the blaze once it's somewhat suppressed. Rocky terrain in both the Eagle Creek wilderness and where the Chetco Bar blaze burns makes it all but impossible to send scores of people in after the aircraft.

"If you can't get people in there, you can't accomplish its mission," Grafe said.

Brown also said that heavy smoke and smog from both blazes made it difficult to asses just where the SuperTanker could target the fires burning beneath. Visibility is so bad that infrared is one of the only reliable ways to track what's burning.

The aircraft also requires immense effort to prepare and refuel, as KOIN reported earlier this week. KATU reports it also costs $120,000 per day to operate.

But the price and logistics aren't what's stopping state and federal officials from contracting the SuperTanker. Oregon State Forester Peter Daugherty said Brown has told him to disregard costs when considering how to tackle either of the state's large blazes.

"It's up to the incident management teams to ask for the resources they need to control the fire," he said.

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Lightning Strikes Hurricane Hunter Plane with News 5 On Board

BILOXI, Mississippi (WKRG) — News 5’s J.B. Biunno and Cameron Edgeworth traveled with the Hurricane Hunters into Hurricane Irma Saturday morning when a lightning strike hit the plane.

While they were in the air the plane was struck.  Pilots believe it happened sometime shortly after takeoff from Keesler Air Force Base. 

The lightning strike was believed to be minor and hit the front end of the modified C130 aircraft leaving some damage.

The aircraft will be grounded for some time to be fixed for the damage, but it is unknown how long.

On the trip to Irma they received the breaking information that Irma downgraded to a category 3 Hurricane.  

We are told the plane will go to the shop for repairs, but will be back in the air and hunting Hurricane Irma as soon as possible.

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Chesapeake-based company's drone pilots fly more than 5,000 Harvey disaster relief missions in Houston area

A Chesapeake-based company that trains amateur drone pilots coordinated more than 5,000 disaster relief missions in the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey.

DroneUp, an app that's the main interest of Chesapeake resident Tom Walker's company DART Ventures, allows certified drone pilots – many of them hobbyists – to sign up for training and be part of a "drone-assisted response team" to help when they receive alerts, such as for a missing child or missing elderly person.

After seeing Harvey's destruction of Texas communities, the app's leaders said, they decided to help by recruiting drone pilots in the area who could help capture photo and video in areas most people couldn't reach, said Jim Harenchar, DroneUp's chief marketing officer.

Following approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the team introduced the platform in Texas a little more than a week ago. The idea was to recruit local pilots who could download the app and be alerted to disaster-related assignments from law enforcement or citizens.

More than 400 pilots signed up, a quarter of them in Houston, Harenchar said. Some were from out of state.

"They packed up their drones and their suitcase and off they went to try to be of help," Harenchar said. 

DroneUp served as a sort of middleman, alerting its pilots to the missions when they popped up and sending the resulting photos and video to the appropriate individual, commercial or government parties.

The pilots have carried out more than 5,000 assignments in the area, Harenchar said Saturday. Those included residents' requests to check on elderly neighbors or people who had to flee their farms and needed to know the status of their animals left behind.

The pilots would receive an address, fly their drone out and come back with footage that could inform the displaced people who needed it. Many commercial operations used the platform to check on flooded facilities and see when they could get employees back in.

Harenchar said requests are starting to die down with only a little over a dozen each day. All the work in Texas was voluntary.

Now that the newly launched platform has gotten significant recognition, the team's shifting to developing a revenue stream.

On that note, DroneUp named Wayne Zinn, who has worked with Virginia Beach-based Operation Smile, as its new CEO. Walker had served as president and CEO and will continue on as president.

"This experience showed us that we were stretched way too thin," Harenchar said. But the Harvey work also proved "a bit of validation for what we thought the platform would allow."

DroneUp has been in contact with state and federal emergency management officials from Virginia down to Florida to help with Hurricane Irma efforts. But Harenchar said they want to make sure "we are not a distraction to ongoing or existing plans.

"We're prepared. We're on standby. But we'll only go if the states ask us to."

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Exclusive: Flying into the eye of Hurricane Irma with U.S. 'Hurricane Hunters'

THE EYE OF HURRICANE IRMA (Reuters) - The sky darkened, lightning flashed and a jolt of turbulence shook the cabin of the hulking Air Force turboprop aircraft as it plied its way toward the eye of Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever recorded.

Piloting the four-engine, WC-130J aircraft was Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Jim Hitterman, who over the past 22 years has flown into 40 to 50 hurricanes.

Every storm is different but he likens the experience to driving through a car wash - with one big difference.

“As you’re driving through that car wash, a bunch of gorillas start jumping on top of your car,” Hitterman said, adding that sometimes shaking gets so bad, he cannot see his instruments.

On Friday and Saturday, Reuters accompanied the Air Force Reserves’ “Hurricane Hunters,” whose hard-won data taken directly from the center of storms like Hurricane Irma are critical to U.S. forecasts that save lives.

Experts say U.S. satellite data simply cannot do the job.

“We can estimate by satellite what the strength and size of a hurricane is. But only if you go into the hurricane can you really get an accurate measure of its exact center location, the structure, the maximum winds,” said Rick Knabb, a hurricane expert at the Weather Channel and a former director the National Hurricane Center.

The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s “Hurricane Hunters” are based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. Its members trace the origin of hurricane hunting to a 1943 barroom dare by two then-Army Air Corps pilots to fly through a hurricane off Texas.

Today, the missions are carried out largely by Air Force reservists who, after a few days or weeks of chasing storms, return to their jobs in the civilian world.

Hitterman, 49, flies for Delta Airlines most of the time and, as a hobby, races motorcycles.

The flight meteorologist, Major Nicole Mitchell, is an experienced television news meteorologist and mother of an eight-month-old baby boy. She normally lives in Minnesota.

The way Mitchell sees it, the more accurate her data is, the more accurate the forecasts can be that tell U.S. citizens whether to evacuate their homes as Irma or other storms advance.

“It’s a fact that we make a difference,” she said.


Mitchell’s plane would make four passes in total through Irma’s eye during that mission, some entries and exits more turbulent than others. Its final pass came on Saturday, as Hurricane Irma walloped Cuba’s northern coast.

Irma’s interaction with Cuba’s terrain weakened the storm from a Category 5 to a Category 4 hurricane but U.S. National Hurricane Center warned the storm was anticipated to strengthen again.

Irma was expected to hit Florida on Sunday morning, bringing massive damage from wind and flooding to America’s fourth-largest state by population. Millions of Florida residents have been ordered to evacuate.

Despite the severity of storms like Irma and the undeniable danger on the ground, these U.S. flights into hurricanes have an incredible safety record - not one aircraft has been lost in more than four decades. The last time was in 1974. 

But they are not without risk. Some six hurricane or typhoon hunting aircraft have been lost in total, costing 53 lives, according to the Weather Underground website.

Jeff Masters, director of meteorology of The Weather Underground, recalled an extremely close call during a flight into Hurricane Hugo in 1989 organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which also fields its own turbo-prop aircraft.

The pilot lost control of the aircraft, one of the engines caught on fire, and the aircraft descended rapidly, all because satellite data had given his crew the sense they were flying into a Category 3 storm. It turned out to be a Category 5.

They were flying much too low for a storm that potent.

“We went in at 1,500 feet, which is a no-no in a Category 5 and we got clobbered,” recounted Masters. The pilot was able to recover control after entering Hugo’s eye.

On the mission into Irma, jolts of turbulence also shook the equipment in the cabin as it neared the eye of the hurricane. Emergency parachutes swayed. 

But then, suddenly, everything in the plane settled down.

It was safe enough to take off seat belts. The flying was smooth.

Inside the eye, the sky opened up. The dark “eyewall” - the surrounding ring of clouds - could be seen outside the cockpit window.


Masters says someday drones might be able to do the risky job now done by experienced air crews.

But, from the cockpit of this Hurricane Hunter flight, that possibility still seems distant. 

This aircraft, like all of the 53rd’s 10 WC-130J planes, are specially equipped to gather meteorological data and send it to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Some of that equipment is operated manually.

That includes releasing sensors through the belly of the aircraft that, as they fall, transmit storm data including Irma’s pressure, wind speed and direction.

As the mission got underway, the sensors - known as dropsondes - appeared to be malfunctioning.

Technical Sergeant Karen Moore, the loadmaster who releases the dropsondes from the aircraft, among many other duties, said she could not get its GPS signal as it fell into Irma’s winds.

So, Moore took out a screwdriver and literally started fixing them on the fly, one by one. That is something a drone would not be able to do.

Hitterman said he also could see a future where pilotless planes fly into hurricanes to get the data Americans need.

“But I think it’s a ways off,” he said. 

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Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University evacuates more than 40 planes to Auburn University Regional Airport (KAUO) as Irma approaches

Forty-two planes owned by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University evacuated from Daytona, Florida, to Auburn University Regional Airport on Saturday to avoid being damaged by Hurricane Irma as she approaches the Florida peninsula.

Many of the planes would land within minutes of each other with the first aircraft arriving at 3:30 a.m. and the last one at 7:30 a.m.

“For a brief moment in time, Auburn’s going to be the busiest airport in the Southeast," said Steve Swartz, a flight instructor for Auburn University’s flight school.

In 2004, many of Embry-Riddle’s planes were damaged by Hurricane Charley, and since then, Embry-Riddle has been evacuating planes to Auburn. Irma, now a powerful Category 3 Hurricane, is preparing to make landfall early Sunday morning in South Florida.

For the last several days, Floridians have been evacuating further north to escape the most powerful parts of the Hurricane. But the eye of the weakened storm is expected to pass just east of Auburn next week, and if that happens, Swartz said the planes could have to be evacuated further north. It will likely be a tropical storm at that point, according to the National Weather Service.

But for now, Airport Assistant Director Todd Storey the airport is happy to provide the space and the help.

The planes were flown by Embry-Riddle students and faculty who are planning to stay here until there is no longer any threat from Irma. When asked how long the pilots would be in Auburn, flight instructor and Embry-Riddle student Matthew Mackenstein said probably until Tuesday or Wednesday.

After landing on Runway 36, each plane was escorted by a pilot truck to the west tarmac where a waiting van would shuttle pilots to the terminal area.

“Very excited to come here, first time in Auburn, I’d like to see some new places, some new people," said Mackenstein, shortly after landing in Auburn.

Auburn student volunteers came to the airport terminal to welcome and help pilots. 

Auburn students are enthusiastic about Aviation and willing to provide support, which is a good testament to what Auburn University’s about, Storey said.

Seth Swiecichowski, who is a certified pilot and an Auburn freshman studying aerospace, was one of the students who volunteered to come Saturday morning.

"[I] know that their fleet was destroyed a couple years ago, and I just wanted to help out," Swiecichowski said.

Many Auburn residents and children also came to AUO this morning to watch the planes arrive. 

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Grants Pass Airport (3S8) Runway Will Be Closed for Five Days During Pavement Project

The Grants Pass Airport runway will be closed to the public toward the end of next week for a major pavement maintenance project.

According to Josephine County Airports Manager Larry Graves, the runway at the Grants Pass Airport will be closed for a large portion of the September 14th-19th time frame.

Graves said the airport itself will not close as firefighting helicopter traffic will likely be using various portions of the airfield during the runway closures.

The notification is primarily for Grants Pass Airport tenants, advisory board members, commercial operators and emergency responders.

Graves said Josephine County is sorry for the inconvenience and appreciates the understanding and cooperation of those affected during the maintenance project, which is being paid for through grants from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Original article can be found here ➤

Oakland International Airport (KOAK): Officials warn of possible noise disruption during runway reconstruction work

OAKLAND — Residents living near the Oakland International Airport may experience some temporary noise disturbances from passing planes starting Sunday, when crews begin rehabilitating the airport’s main runway, officials said.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced in June it would provide the airport with $37.4 million to reconstruct the runway, which was last repaved in 2001, airport officials said. Work will begin Sept. 10 and is expected to continue until Sept. 25.

During that time, planes will use a temporary, parallel runway on airport property near Earhart Road, said airport spokeswoman Keonnis Taylor. Business jets will use the same runway.

Residents living nearby may experience more noise because the planes will be flying a little closer to the airport’s border with the surrounding community. The temporary runway is necessary to allow the airport to continue offering 24-hour service, airport officials said.

But, Taylor said passengers using the airport aren’t likely experience any changes.

“(Airplanes) will simply taxi on an alternate runway located at North Field for take-off and landing,” she said.

Anyone concerned about the level of noise can call the airport’s noise hotline at (510) 563-6463.

Original article can be found here ➤

Private pilots airlift school supplies from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (KAUS) for youngest Harvey victims

People load donated school supplies onto private planes at Austin Bergstrom International Airport on Saturday, September 9, 2017, for delivery to Port Arthur, one of the cities devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than two dozen pilots took off from Austin Bergstrom International Airport Saturday morning to make a special delivery.

At least 25 airplanes were packed with school supplies going to some of the youngest Harvey victims in Port Arthur, Beaumont and surrounding areas.

The organizers of the airlift said Port Arthur’s police chief told them that in a normal year, local teachers spend between $1,500 and $1,800 of their own money on supplies for their students.

“We were looking for something to help the hurricane victims, and this seemed like the perfect thing to do — tie aviation into it and be able to help a lot of families,” said pilot Jeff Kelly.

Signature Flight Support and Aerobridge in Austin organized the airlift of the school supplies and said they wanted to focus on these areas because they are the most economically challenged.

Original article can be found here ➤

Flying rubber neckers disrupt drones working on Texas recovery

As they flew a fleet of drones over flood-ravaged Texas to aid rescuers and inspect levees, Robin Murphy and her team of disaster-response veterans expected to be operating in nearly empty skies.

What they saw instead when they called up a drone-tracking application in Fort Bend County southwest of Houston were whirling flocks of camera-carrying vehicles flying in spite of a federal prohibition on all but a handful of specially approved operations.

"What exactly is it you're doing other than disaster tourism?" said Murphy, who has assisted in disaster responses for more than a decade and is director of Texas A&M University's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

The mass destruction brought on by Hurricane Harvey has been a seminal moment for drone operators, proving that they can effectively map flooding, locate people in need of rescue and verify damage to speed insurance claims. But the event has also illustrated the downside of a technology that has expanded so widely it has attracted irresponsible users who have hampered emergency crews.

Murphy and other drone operators who are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration said they watched in dismay over the past week as people posted photos on social media showing them flying drones while drinking beer or urging drone owners to disobey the law.

As they gear up for similar operations to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, a powerful category 5 storm bearing down on Florida with landfall expected over the weekend, they are girding for the worst.

The FAA last year approved regulations for the first time allowing routine commercial small-drone flights, making the influx after Harvey possible. Still, flights are limited to low altitudes and operators must keep the devices within sight. The agency didn't respond to an email request for comment on whether it had begun any enforcement actions related to recent flights in Texas.

"In any young industry, during pivotal moments in its development, there are going to be positives and there are going to be missteps and mistakes that you need to learn from," said Brian Scott, a drone company owner who was part of an impromptu team known as Humanitarian Drones that helped local officials in Houston, Port Arthur and Rockport.

In Rockport, which is on the Gulf of Mexico coast and suffered extensive damage, their team of six drones was able to photograph 1,650 homes, turning over the data to local government officials, Scott said. The data will be used in the community's application for U.S. disaster assistance, he said.

"We've essentially done in two and a half days what it would have taken them two weeks to do on the ground," he said. "That's the kind of efficiency we've lent to them."

The Humanitarian Drones team were all licensed by the FAA for commercial drone operations and received permission from the agency to fly in some restricted zones, Scott said.

That wasn't true of many drone pilots they encountered, he said.

"You had an influx of everybody and their brother with a drone coming down and getting in the way," he said. "We're going to get a black eye like that."

In Houston, where flood waters have mostly receded, leaving brown silt across vast areas, Houston Fire Department drone pilot Patrick Hagan encountered a different problem: there still isn't a formal system of keeping drones and the emergency helicopters that swarmed the city apart.

Hagan was flying his quad copter over a flooded highway last week, gaging the retreat of floodwaters, when he heard the thumping of an approaching police helicopter. He said he had a "heart-stopping" moment as he raced to lower his radio-controlled aircraft without knowing where the chopper was headed.

With emergency aircraft flying a lower altitudes than usual, "it doesn't leave a lot of room for error," Hagan said in an interview.

Hagan said the dozen missions he flew last week to document the extent of flooding in Houston provided valuable information that would have been difficult or far more costly to obtain. But he often flew no higher than tree-top level because the emergency helicopters criss-crossing the city had no way of seeing where he was.

An air-traffic system for small drones at low altitudes doesn't exist and very few of the devices are equipped with the tracking beacons that can be seen by FAA controllers or other aircraft. As a result, managing drones in an emergency environment is still "a work in progress," Hagan said.

He also encountered two people who were flying drones illegally even though the FAA had issued an order not to fly over the city. One was a teenage boy, he said.

"I told him the FAA had grounded them," he said. "And it's extremely dangerous to be in the air at all."

There is little doubt that drones are proving useful after widespread disasters such as Harvey.

On a street in Missouri City, a suburb southwest of Houston hit by high winds during the storm, fence posts, tree limbs and other debris were piled in front of nearly every house.

Brent Hazen, an adjuster for Farmers Insurance Group, powered up a drone built by Kespry Inc. on Thursday afternoon. The quad copter lifted off and flew a pre-programmed route back and forth over a home insured by Farmers, capturing dozens of photos of the roof.

The flight was completed in 11 minutes, a task that would have taken far longer if Hazen had had to climb up on a ladder. It was also safer, sparing him from having to get onto the steeply pitched second-story roof, he said.

"It's definitely one of those things that will make it more efficient," he said.

Drones are not a panacea for tasks like insurance adjusting, and operations have been limited as operators waited for FAA flight restrictions to be lifted and for water levels to drop.

If there's flood damage inside a home, a human still has to make an assessment, said Kristina Tomasetti, strategic innovation director at insurance company USAA Capital Corp. The company has used unmanned vehicles in about 50 cases, so far, Tomasetti said.

"Our end game isn't to use drones everywhere," Tomasetti said. Still, they are useful tools that the company is embracing, she said.

Original article  ➤

Denver International Airport (KDEN) ... Where the Bison Might Soon Roam: Flyers through this large airport could be greeted by America’s official mammal

Travelers into Denver International Airport could be welcomed by a herd of bison if a new plan to let the animals roam the facility's property goes through, reports Bruce Finley for the Denver Post.

Officials from the airport are in talks with federal officials to open up about 200 acres of land to bison from the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge to roaming and grazing, according to Finley. The bison will have no trouble filling that space, as the refuge's herd has reached a record high of 122 animals, with plans to expand to 147 in the coming months, as more animals are imported to bolster the herd's gene pool.

Bison were once a dominant wild animal of America, with tens of millions of them roaming the Great Plains, but widespread hunting, accelerated by completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, decimated the species by the late 19th century. Heroic efforts by conservationists have slowly brought the bison back from the brink of extinction, and today an estimated 30,000 of them live in wild herds, mainly in national parks or refuges like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Last year, the federal government recognized the bison as the "official mammal" of the United States, cementing its place in the country's cultural identity.

Opening up space to bison is more than just a conservation win for Denver airport officials. The iconic animals would make any trip through the airport a memorable one for visitors, especially those not used to seeing animals that can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. And Denver International Airport has the space to spare, notes Finley—its property comprises more than 50 square miles of space, much of it empty.

To make sure that bison encounters aren't too intimate, however, officials are currently working on plans to build a barrier to separate the animals from the road and runways. For these powerful beasts an ordinary fence won't do, so it could take the form of two massive fences.

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National Transportation Safety Board asking Federal Aviation Administration for safety requirements for medical helicopters

The National Transportation Safety Board is calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to issue more safety requirements for medical helicopters.

Duke University Medical Center has two emergency medical transport helicopters.

Duke Life Flight has been in operation for 32 years. The most recent crash before Friday’s fatal accident was in 1999.

CBS North Carolina pulled crash data from the National Transportation Safety Board. The agency says it’s had a long standing concern for medical helicopter safety.

Here is the number of Helicopter Emergency Medical Services crashes in the past couple of years.

The NTSB has been asking the FAA for better safety requirements since 1988, then again in 2006 and again in 2009.

This includes requiring night vision systems and better training for pilots.

Last year, the chairman of the NTSB wrote an article saying safety for these helicopters have improved but much more is needed.

You can read that report here.

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Nevada makes a mark at InterDrone, officials say

James Spear, right, pilots the Yuneec H520, unmanned aircraft system, as Ross Miller, the Nevada Highway Patrol major accident investigation team, looks on as Yuneec and the Nevada Highway patrol demonstrate the latest commercial sUAS during an accident reconstruction on Thursday, September 7, 2017, outside the Rio hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

Although Nevada didn’t have a strong presence on the exhibit floor, local drone officials say the state still made a mark at InterDrone.

The commercial drone conference ran Wednesday through Friday at the Rio. Of the 170 exhibitors that displayed their latest and greatest drone gear at InterDrone, six were local — and not necessarily drone related.

The city of Henderson, the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems and the Nevada Business Aviation Association, the Las Vegas Drone Club all had booths, as did Las Vegas-based Yota Enterprises, which was selling cell phone accessories, and OIC Advance, which was offering massages.

InterDrone event organizers told the Review-Journal that OIC Advance is a Nevada company, though the company is not listed on the Nevada Secretary of State’s website, and a company representative did not return a request for comment.

Reza Karamooz, president of the Nevada Business Aviation Association, ran the booth with some interns promoting science, technology, engineering and math education.

“We bring this type of tech to you,” Karamooz said.

Karamooz exhibited on the floor with the intent of meeting other STEM-education organizations that they could collaborate with. That didn’t pan out the way he would have liked, he said. But, he hopes to partner with some Clark County School District classrooms soon.

“I invited educators from CCSD to come to the expo for free,” Karamooz said.

While the show floor wasn’t packed with Nevada-specific companies, Chris Walach, director of all testing sites in Nevada for unmanned aerial systems said Nevada’s presence was the greatest its been since InterDrone first launched in 2015.

The conference kicked off with a recorded video welcome message from Gov. Brian Sandoval followed by a keynote from Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta, in which he mentioned that Nevada is a key player in research and development for a potential drone detection 

Those comments helped to raise awareness about the efforts in Nevada to shape the drone industry, Walach said.

Walach and a team also coordinated to have four companies conduct live drone demonstrations during the pre-conference day on Tuesday at the 6-acre Henderson Unmanned Vehicle Range urban drone-testing site, located at 1125 Nevada State Drive.

Tom Wilczek, aerospace and defense industry specialist for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said the demonstrations were a success.

“I would like to see the HUVR demonstration area grow, and have more opportunities and more of these entities come out and demo their products,” Wilczek said, adding that he and Walach are looking into ways to do that.

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Harvey will be ‘a landmark’ in drone usage, Federal Aviation Administration chief says in Las Vegas

A drone’s flight is demonstrated during the InterDrone Conference at the Rio on Wednesday, September 6, 2017. 

Even as  drones prove essential in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath, the Federal Aviation Administration is exploring new ways to detect them when they’re being used for illegal and malicious activities.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, speaking at the InterDrone conference at the Rio on Wednesday, said drones are playing a transformative role in post-hurricane operations in the Houston area and the FAA had to give clearances quickly.

“We recognized that we needed to move fast — faster than we have ever moved before,” he said. "We basically made the decision that anyone with a legitimate reason to fly an unmanned aircraft would be able to do so. In most cases, we were able to approve individual operations within minutes of receiving a request.”

By the end of last week, Huerta said the FAA had issued more than 70 authorizations covering a wide range of activities by local, state and federal agencies. That number is expected to climb as the cleanup efforts continue.

Huerta said drones were used to survey damage to roads, bridges, underpasses and water treatment plants that required immediate repair. Oil and energy companies used drones to spot damage to flooded infrastructure.

“Every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system,” Huerta said. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.”

Despite the many constructive uses of drones, people are using them for illegal activity as well. Huerta noted drones have been used to fly contraband into federal prisons over a dozen times in the last five years.

“Just last month, three men were arrested for allegedly using a drone to drop drugs and a cellphone into a prison in Ionia, Mich.,” he said.

Additionally, Huerta said there has been an increase in drone sightings in restricted airspace, including interfering with wildfire fighting operations, crashing drones in crowded urban areas and flying them near crowded stadiums.

Drone users have also flown in restricted airspace around the nation’s airports, with some of those reports coming from McCarran International Airport.

“We’re receiving an average of about 200 drone-sighting reports from pilots each month this year,” he said. “That’s significantly higher than in both 2016 and 2015. We’ve had a number of reports from pilots right around Las Vegas in just the past month — at altitudes of up to 6,000 feet.”

To attempt to address these issues, Huerta said the Drone Advisory Committee has been asked to look at ways to complement other work that’s been done to evaluate technology that could be used to detect drones flying without authorization around airports and other critical infrastructure.

“This spring, we completed the fifth and final field evaluation of potential drone detection systems, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport,” he said. “We’re going to use the information we got from the evaluations to develop minimum performance standards for drone-detection technology that might be deployed around airports here in the U.S.”

Huerta said the effort included FAA’s partners in the Pathfinder and unmanned aircraft test site programs, including the test site in Northern Nevada.

The FAA marked the one-year anniversary of its small unmanned aircraft rule, or Part 107, on Aug. 29. In the first year, the FAA registered more than 79,000 commercial aircraft and 59,000 remote pilot certificates. He said 92 percent of the people who take the pilot certificate exam passed it.

“The rule really was a game changer because it allows for routine public and commercial operations, without getting case-by-case FAA approvals — provided they are conducted within the parameters of the rule,” Huerta said.

“Very few people would have envisioned that within a few years, drones would be the fastest-growing field in aviation,” Huerta said. “And few people would have envisioned that the FAA would be devoting so much of its energy and resources to this field.”

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