It’s a blur, it’s a plan, it’s ... lend­ing a su­per hand

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Gra­ham Am­brose

The dis­tress call went out at 4:15 p.m. Two hik­ers and a dog got lost in the woods af­ter mis­tak­enly stray­ing from a trail near Devil’s Head, a moun­tain sum­mit in the Ram­part Range 40 miles south of Den­ver.

Just two years ago, lo­cat­ing the lost hik­ers might have taken all night, ac­cord­ing to Mor­ris Hansen, vice pres­i­dent of the Dou­glas County Search and Res­cue team, which re­sponded to the call.

This time, search-and-res­cue of­fi­cials needed just two hours.

The dif­fer­ence was an un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle, or drone, which saved the crew hours of foot-hunt­ing and hun­dreds of dol­lars on ex­pen­sive search-and-res­cue ef­forts.

Ten years ago, ev­ery­day use of civil­ian drones sounded more like science-fic­tion than so­cial pol­icy. To­day, fall­ing costs and im­prov­ing tech­nolo­gies have helped launch the avi­a­tion ve­hi­cles in the pub­lic sec­tor, where UAVs are used for ev­ery­thing from sur­vey­ing and map­ping to search and res­cue, and from law en­force­ment to fight­ing wild­fires.

Still, de­spite grow­ing recog­ni­tion of the tech­nol­ogy’s po­ten­tial, many civic en­ti­ties such as the Dou­glas County Search and Res­cue team have never re­ceived for­mal UAV train­ing from a pub­lic agency. In­stead, Hansen, a drone recre­ation­al­ist who spear­headed Dou­glas County Search and Res­cue’s UAV im­ple­men­ta­tion, has

been ap­ply­ing lessons from his pri­vate hobby for the pub­lic good.

“First­hand knowl­edge on us­ing drones is the big­gest gap that ex­ists to­day,” he said. “Putting the thing up in the air doesn’t solve all of the prob­lems. You have to know when to put it up there, what you’re do­ing up there, what cam­era to use up there and how to be safe.”

Although the nascent tech­nol­ogy could save lives, time and tax­payer dol­lars, drones have only be­gun to achieve liftoff in Colorado’s pub­lic sec­tor.

In June, state leg­is­la­tors passed House Bill 1070, which tasked a sub­di­vi­sion of the Colorado Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety — the Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence — with con­duct­ing a study on how to in­te­grate un­manned air­craft sys­tems in pub­lic agen­cies, from fire­fight­ing and search and res­cue to ac­ci­dent re­con­struc­tion and emer­gency man­age­ment.

The bill — which also stip­u­lated that the study con­sider pri­vacy con­cerns, costs and time­li­ness of de­ploy­ment — aims to help steer pub­lic agen­cies to­ward best prac­tices.

“We want to get to the nuts and bolts of what works in an un­bi­ased way,” said Bob Gann, who holds a doc­tor­ate in elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing and serves as the cen­ter’s deputy di­rec­tor. “We eval­u­ate sys­tems and plat­forms and give oth­ers the tools and rec­om­men­da­tions to im­ple­ment their pro­gram.”

Ab­sent clear guide­lines and over­head sup­port or fund­ing, many pub­lic agen­cies look­ing to im­ple­ment un­manned avi­a­tion sys­tems have faced early prob­lems ob­tain­ing drones, train­ing and li­cens­ing. (The Cen­ter for Ex­cel­lence re­lies on gifts, grants and pri­vate do­na­tions; HB 1070 pro­vided no fund­ing.) Such bar­ri­ers can cost agen­cies thou­sands of dol­lars and drain dozens of hours.

“It’s a lit­tle bit of the Wild West in terms of UAVs,” Gann said. “We’re re­ally in the early stages of peo­ple us­ing them in a pro­gram­matic way. We’re try­ing to get away from ev­ery­body do­ing their own thing to a more prag­matic ap­proach that agen­cies can fol­low.”

Rapid tech­no­log­i­cal change has has­tened the con­fu­sion. What cost $100,000 just a few years ago now costs $10,000, Gann said. Although fall­ing costs can make drones more ac­ces­si­ble for cash-strapped agen­cies, tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency hasn’t kept pace. “There’s a lot of di­ver­sity in terms of what to do, and even more un­cer­tainty about how to do it,” Gann said.

Guide­lines could help agen­cies nav­i­gate the murky ter­rain and pro­vide needed as­sis­tance on im­ple­men­ta­tion and use.

Last year, the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which over­sees drone use and reg­u­la­tions in the United States, im­ple­mented sep­a­rate rules for recre­ation­al­ists and pro­fes­sional fly­ers in the pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tors. The FAA es­ti­mates that reg­u­la­tions could gen­er­ate more than $82 bil­lion for the U.S. econ­omy and cre­ate more than 100,000 new jobs within a decade, as drone ship­ments quadru­ple over the next four years.

That ex­cites tech­nol­o­gists, who see a bud­ding Colorado in­dus­try on the verge of a boom. In April, Den­ver will host AUVSI Xponen­tial, the largest trade show for un­manned sys­tems and ro­bot­ics in the United States. The four-day event will fea­ture more than 650 man­u­fac­tur­ers, 200 pan­els led by in­dus­try ex­perts, and a litany of Colorado-based com­pa­nies and en­thu­si­asts ea­ger to show off the state of the tech­nol­ogy in the Rocky Moun­tain re­gion.

“In Colorado, it all comes from our space-re­lated busi­ness,” says Jay Lin­dell, an aero­space and de­fense in­dus­try cham­pion at the Colorado Of­fice of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment and In­ter­na­tional Trade. “We’ve got the right in­dus­try sec­tor. It’s slow de­vel­op­ing, but more and more pub­lic agen­cies are us­ing drones.”

Unau­tho­rized drones, how­ever, can cre­ate prob­lems. So far this year, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter, 14 aerial fire­fight­ing op­er­a­tions have been grounded due to the crash risk posed by il­le­gally de­ployed UAVs.

Drones have also re­ceived wide­spread skep­ti­cism largely due to con­cerns over pri­vacy and tech­no­log­i­cal un­em­ploy­ment. Polling sug­gests that about two-thirds of Amer­i­cans share some level of ap­pre­hen­sion over the tech­nol­ogy, while three-quar­ters sup­port reg­u­la­tions. Civil rights groups such as the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union have wor­ried that, with­out proper reg­u­la­tion, un­manned ve­hi­cles could “cause un­prece­dented in­va­sions of our pri­vacy rights” via fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware, in­frared tech­nol­ogy and hid­den record­ing de­vices.

Such con­cerns came to a head three years ago in Ara­pa­hoe County when the tiny town of Deer Trail gained na­tional at­ten­tion af­ter res­i­dents con­sid­ered an anti-sur­veil­lance mea­sure that would have al­lowed li­cense-hold­ers to shoot down drones.The mea­sure ul­ti­mately failed.

Jeff Cozart, the CEO of Ju­niper Un­manned, an un­manned air­craft sys­tems con­sul­tancy based in Golden that con­tracts work with the state of Colorado on land map­ping and sur­vey­ing, doesn’t see drones as a threat to hu­man work­ers.

“It’s a ra­tio­nal fear, but the re­al­ity is that drones will add many more jobs,” he said. “For the most part, what we’re do­ing is force mul­ti­ply­ing. Most of the ap­pli­ca­tions that we have, we’re not re­plac­ing peo­ple, but we’re mak­ing them more ef­fec­tive at their jobs.”

From polic­ing to agri­cul­ture, where 80 per­cent of all com­mer­cial-drone ac­tiv­ity may take place, many Coloradans hope a fu­ture marked by greater ef­fi­ciency does not come at the ex­pense of em­ploy­ment or pri­vacy.

Gann un­der­stands the con­cerns but says tech­no­log­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions pre­vent drones from serv­ing as ef­fec­tive stores of pri­vate in­for­ma­tion.

“On a law en­force­ment side, peo­ple need to un­der­stand that these de­vices are not re­ally that good with­out di­rec­tion,” he said. “They don’t fly that long or go that far. They fly for 15 to 20 min­utes. You just can’t use that thing to go out and search for ran­dom things or spy on peo­ple.”

Coloradans, he said, usu­ally come around to em­brac­ing the tech­nol­ogy af­ter pub­lic agents have ad­dressed their wor­ries with trans­parency and clear in­tent.

Still, adop­tion and ac­cep­tance will re­quire pa­tience from the pub­lic as in­creased ex­po­sure de­flates the mythic ex­pec­ta­tions and fears sur­round­ing drones.

“Drones aren’t a sil­ver bul­let,” Hansen said. “But they’re an­other tool for search and res­cue to do our job.”

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Parker Downey, the chief pi­lot for Ju­niper Un­manned, flies a drone while con­duct­ing sur­vey work in­volv­ing oil wells at some fields in Thorn­ton on Fri­day.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Ju­niper Un­manned and In­ter­na­tional Geo­phys­i­cal Ser­vices pi­lot a drone in Thorn­ton. Drones do ev­ery­thing from sur­vey­ing to search and res­cue, and from law en­force­ment to fight­ing wild­fires.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.