drone view of wild horses (GaudiLab/Shutterstock.com)

Drones on duty

Jason Wayne Huddleston, a wanted felon, fled into a cornfield last August when authorities were looking for him in Florence Township, Mich.


Drones ready for takeoff

Once technology and regulations are in place for beyond-visual-line-of-sight and multiple-drone piloting operations, unmanned aerial systems will really take off, experts say. Read more.

Michigan State Police Sgt. Matt Rogers said such a situation would normally be handled with a K9 unit. A couple of them were on the scene already, he recalled -- but the police also had a drone.

In February 2015, the state police received clearance from the FAA to use a drone over the entire state, making it one of the first law enforcement agencies to do so. Two FAA officials came to Michigan to go over paperwork and conduct practical exercises with the department before granting the operational certificate of authorization. The first test of the Aeryon SkyRanger, which the state police paid for with funding from the Department of Homeland Security, occurred the following month.

The quadcopter flew its maiden voyage over the site of a suspected arson in Jenison — “coldest day of the year,” Rogers told GCN. Since then, he said fire investigators have requested use of the drone on a regular basis. Crash analysis and crime scene footage join fire inspection for the top three uses, he added.

The department relies on Pix4D software to stitch together images from fires or car accidents. It can create both 2-D and 3-D images. Using GPS, officers place black-and-white placards on the ground to find their exact location. That information can be uploaded to Pix4D to allow investigators to take measurements from the images.

“This technology is crazy,” Rogers said in describing the imaging capabilities.

The Michigan State Police has since bought and fielded one more drone with another trained pilot. A third is being prepared for deployment, and there are plans for even more. It’s a welcome development for Rogers, who had been the lone drone operator.

“Michigan is a pretty big state, and I was driving everywhere,” he said. “I was running all over the state.”

The department has also invested in a downlink truck that can live stream video from the drone or a helicopter via a secure internet site.

And as for that cornfield fugitive? Rogers was using the drone’s forward-looking infrared camera that can pick up heat sources when he spotted Huddleston crouching between the rows. The drone’s initial flight over the cornfield had not revealed anything, so Rogers flew it higher and pointed the camera straight down. He was able to guide officers to the suspect, and the arrest was handled smoothly.

A better tool for tracking wildlife

Finding tagged animals using VHF transmitters is nothing new. The technology dates to the mid-1960s, and federal agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service have used them for decades. But it’s not always the most efficient approach.

Michael Shafer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Northern Arizona University, said VHF signals can bounce off topographical features or be obstructed by objects as common as a tree. That can make the process of finding tagged wildlife more difficult and time-consuming, he added. So he and his colleagues are building a drone-based system for picking up the signals.

By placing the receiver on a drone, they’re effectively designing a 400-foot pole, Shafer said. The drone will allow them to rise above obstructions and find the animals they seek far more quickly and inexpensively than they would by flying over the area in a plane, which is what many researchers do.

Early tests of the technology, which have involved flying grid patterns over an area with stationary transmitters, have proved its value, Shafer said. The current setup uses a receiver and a small computer that captures the VHF data locally on the drone then sends it via a Wi-Fi link to researchers on the ground.

“These are kind of the baseline functionalities that we’re looking at developing,” he said, “basically doing things very similar to what a wildlife biologist would already do but allowing them to do it in three-dimensional space much more quickly and efficiently.”

Carol Chambers, a forestry professor and wildlife biologist at Northern Arizona University who is working with Shafer on the project, described the impact the technology could have on field research. “It could make our work more efficient because people won’t have to drive around for days searching for transmitters, often hiking long distances and up to the tops of hills and mountains,” she said in a university announcement about the project.

Shafer said he and his colleagues plan to add eventually add more capabilities, such a software-defined radio that could automate the process of searching the radio spectrum and even pick up multiple signals at once.

When the designs for the drone and the onboard tracking system are finalized, the plans will be released in open-source format so that other researchers can easily use the technology.

The team is also talking with researchers at the Grand Canyon and other sites where aircraft are now used to capture VHF signals about the potential of doing collaborative work with the new drone receivers.

Infrastructure inspection

The usual method of checking the condition of bridges involves snooper trucks, which use a large hydraulic arm to place inspectors over the side of a bridge. They also require blocking off a lane of traffic. But officials at the Minnesota Department of Transportation believe a drone can make that process easier -- if not replace it entirely.

MnDot’s early efforts in this area made it a finalist for last year’s GCN dig IT Awards, and the agency is currently working with a consultant to study the effectiveness of relying on drones for inspections, said Rick Braunig, manager of aviation safety and enforcement at MnDOT.

The drone’s camera can provide valuable information on the condition of a bridge, he added. “We don’t get everything,” he said. “There are some parts of the inspection [when] you really want to be able to tap on the bridge or do a little scraping and see what’s under the surface. But the drone gives us enough information to know where we might want to go back and do that.”

The department has not bought any drones yet because officials must first update operational procedures to include information on drone safety and maintenance and the process for certifying drone operators. But the plan has broad support.

Braunig said MnDOT is also considering using drones to inspect communications towers and for photogrammetry (using photos to measure distances between objects).

Drone manufacturer DJI recently acknowledged the rising trend of using drones for infrastructure inspection with the release of its Matrice 200 Series. The company said the new upward-facing gimbal mount is ideal for looking at the “undersides of bridges, towers and other structures.”

“Drones have quickly become a standard part of the enterprise toolkit, and industrial users have come to rely on DJI technology to efficiently collect aerial data,” said Paul Guo, the company’s director of enterprise solutions.

Although officials are still limited by the FAA’s Part 107, which says drones can’t fly over traffic, Braunig said MnDOT might pursue a certificate of authorization, which would give them more leeway to take advantage of the high-flying technology.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.


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