Commercial, agricultural opportunities for drones explored at forum

Drone Class Northwest College Center for Training

[Editor’s Note: Starting on September 24th, Tom Rullman, a pilot for Delta Airlines and founder of GT Aeronautics, will be teaching a six-week class through Northwest College on operating small drones.]

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In addition to birds and planes, Wyoming’s skies are playing host to an increasing number of drones.

“Drones are here — they’re here to stay,” said Anna Sapp, coordinator of the Northwest College Center for Training and Development. “We have to figure out how they’re going to affect our lives and how they’re going to enrich our lives.”

A forum at NWC last week explored some of the commercial and agricultural benefits of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — as well as the hazards drones pose as they become more prolific.

Americans bought more than 1 million drones last Christmas, according to Aviation Week, which called it an “FAA nightmare.”

“As a pilot that flies for a major airline, the last thing I want to see is a little quadcopter at 20,000 feet go down the left side of the airplane,” said Tom Rullman, a pilot for Delta Airlines. “It would be dangerous to see that.”

Rullman is the founder of GT Aeronautics, a company that manufactures and builds unmanned aircraft systems. Rullman recently relocated the business to the Cody/Powell area.

During the forum, Rullman outlined the FAA’s process for licensing and regulating remotely piloted aircraft. New federal regulations for commercial drone use took effect this week.

While drone is the common term for an aircraft without a pilot aboard, it isn’t the preferred label.

Since “drone” can have negative connotations, pilots use other terms, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, remotely piloted aircraft systems and unmanned aircraft systems.

In the past, unmanned aircraft were mainly used by government agencies. Now, it’s easy for anyone to purchase a drone and launch it in the air, but that doesn’t make you a pilot, Rullman said.

“There’s a lot about flying in the National Airspace System that you need to know, and that’s my job — to educate,” he said.

Beginning Sept. 24, Rullman will teach a six-week class through Northwest College on operating small UAVs.

Economic potential

Local economic development leaders say there’s potential for Park County to benefit from the growing industry of unmanned aircraft.

“What’s really cool is that people are saying the sky’s the limit,” said James Klessens, CEO/president of Forward Cody.

For one thing, Wyoming has a lot of wide-open spaces for experimental flights. Klessens said another quality unique to Wyoming is citizens’ access to state leaders, such as the governor and legislators, who create rules and regulations.

The area also has proactive educational institutions at all levels, he said.

A national study showed the drone industry is expected to create 100,000 jobs in America and have an $80 billion impact on the U.S. economy through 2025. Though the study listed Wyoming in last place for benefiting from the drone industry, Park County has “local resources in place already to defy this prediction,” said Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership (PEP).

The study showed the two biggest industries for drones are agriculture and public safety, she said.

In agriculture, UAVs can help producers monitor livestock and crops. Ag producers are often faced with tough decisions, such as whether a field must be replanted.

“Growers often have to go out and do intensive scouting and make decisions on hundreds of acres with just what they can see with their eye,” said Mike Griffel, agronomy manager for J.R. Simplot Company.

With high-quality aerial data, drones can give growers an up-close look at plants more quickly and easily.

“They can make much more sound decisions and hopefully save money,” Griffel said.

Drones equipped with sensors can help identify viruses in plants so growers can actually see the difference between healthy and sick plants, he said.

“It’s going to be UAV-based data that is going to make it possible — it’s tremendously valuable data,” he said.

Griffel said it’s crucial to work with professionals who provide quality data and know what they’re doing.

That was a point also emphasized by Justin Ness, survey department manager of GDA Engineers in Cody. GDA started using drones in January, he said.

Since then, GDA has done photogrammetry — aerial photography for mapping and surveying — at several area sites, including landfills, gravel pits and roadways.

The data is extremely detailed — “essentially, Google Earth at a minute scale,” Ness said.

“We can get a point on the surface of the earth every inch if we wanted to,” he said.

He said it takes hours to process data from even a one-hour flight.

GDA looks at a number of factors before its flights, such as weather conditions. They establish ground control and have surveyors on the scene.

“Safety is our top priority,” Ness said. He added that the company has “spent a lot of time, effort and energy in research and development.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles can be used for a variety of other commercial purposes, such as marketing as well as inspections of bridges, power lines and other structures.

“UAVs can do that inspection while keeping everybody with their feet on the ground and keeping them safe,” Ness said.

Drones also can aid emergency responders in search-and-rescue operations. For example, a UAV can help rescuers looking for a person lost in rough terrain.

“An unmanned system can pipe back instant video feed and help first responders get there quicker,” he said.

With all the different potential uses for unmanned aircraft systems, Rullman called it “next century of aviation.”


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