Drones buzz into use by businesses

Fred Ford’s latest surveying tool looks a bit like a miniature stealth bomber.
Fred Ford’s latest surveying tool looks a bit like a miniature stealth bomber.

Standing once recent morning on a soccer field in Silverdale, Ford held the slender black drone by its wings and gave the machine three sharp jerks. The drone’s propeller whirred to life, emitting a high-pitched whine.

Ford took a step forward and shoved the aircraft away from his body. The drone knifed into the air, gaining altitude until it nearly disappeared against the blue sky. Then it went to work.

The drone, a Swiss-made eBee, is designed for mapping. Sent aloft, the unmanned aerial vehicle will fly a preprogrammed course, capturing hundreds of overlapping digital images of the ground below. Special software stitches those images together to create an intricate 3D model of the terrain.

Ford, owner of Ford Engineering in Silverdale and a licensed pilot, believes the technology will make his work faster and more efficient, while broadening the capabilities of his firm.

“As a pilot and surveyor, I saw the power of this thing,” he said.

Recognizing the commercial value of drones was one thing, realizing it was another. The Federal Aviation Administration has implemented tight controls on non-recreational use of UAVs while it develops a set of permanent rules for commercial operators. For now, the FAA only is issuing exemptions allowing commercial flights to licensed pilots who complete a lengthy application process. Even as a pilot, Ford found the process daunting.

“It was an uphill battle,” he said.

Fortunately for Ford, Port Ludlow’s Mike Porter already had waded through the red tape. Porter received his authorization to fly UAVs commercially May 5, likely making him the first legal commercial drone operator in the state. The former airline pilot launched his aerial photography business this spring and has been soaring ever since.

“It’s been a really exciting couple of months,” Porter said.

Ford tracked down Porter after reading a Kitsap Sun article about his business, and the pair of pilots drew up plans to incorporate drones into Ford’s surveying work. After testing another UAV model, Ford ordered the fixed-wing eBee.

The surveyor plans to use the UAV to map large tracts of land, cutting down the amount of time he’ll have to spend tramping across properties. He’ll combine the drone’s data with information gathered from traditional ground surveying to create a full picture of the terrain.

Ford said mine and quarry assessments are one natural application for the eBee. Images created by the drone can be used to determine the amount of material stockpiled in a mining pit, saving surveyors the trouble of scrambling over the rock piles.

“That’s the real perfect scenario for the drone,” Ford said.

Commercial uses for drones extend well beyond surveying. Real estate agents have hired Porter and his quadcopter drones to provide bird’s-eye images of estates. A steel fabricator contracted him to document construction of an 11-story Seattle office building.

Elsewhere, drones are being used to analyze irrigation and fertilization of farm fields. Amazon famously is experimenting with drones for package delivery.

The FAA’s tight grip on commercial drone operation is expected to relax somewhat at the start of 2016. Operators will be able to obtain certification for commercial flights by passing a written exam. They won’t be required to have pilot licenses. Once certified, operators will be able to fly small drones for non-recreational purposes during daylight hours, while maintaining constant line-of-sight with the vehicles.

Porter doubts the new certification process will lead to a flood of new drone operators entering the field, but it will make the technology more accessible to businesses.

“It’s going to change things a lot,” he said.

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