Drones touch down in the American West

 

Once reserved for American military use in places like Pakistan, unmanned aerial vehicles — better known as drones — are becoming increasingly common here at home, as our pro-drone editor Jonathan Thompson wrote about earlier this year. But even as public concern mounts over the Obama administration's use of the stealthy aircraft, everyone from scientific researchers to border patrol agents to the paparazzi are singing its praises.

As drone use increases, so does the struggle to manage it. Montana, Texas and Idaho are among six states and a handful of towns that now regulate drones, but with the Federal Aviation Administration poised to adopt new national guidelines by 2015, private and commercial use may soon skyrocket. In the meantime, here’s a roundup of the strange and sometimes unexpected ways that drones are cropping up in the American West.

U.S. Predator drone
Precision agriculture

Researchers at Kansas State University Salina and Oregon State University are developing ag-friendly drones designed to help farmers and ranchers increase productivity — after they drop $5,000 to $100,000.

Despite the hefty price, proponents say the drones, equipped with infrared video cameras, will actually save farmers money in the long run, helping them catch infestations and disease that can’t be seen with the naked eye. And apparently, farmers are lining up to buy the technology — or so say industry leaders like Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group.

In an interview with Topeka TV station WIBW, Toscano said the agriculture sector is expected to emerge as the biggest market for civilian drones. He doesn't mention how cash-strapped farmers will afford the technology.


Scientific data collection

No longer just for tracking down Al Qaeda operatives, drones are now helping American scientists gather beta on birds’ nests, volcanoes and glaciers. Using drones to collect data in hard-to-reach spots is less dangerous, less invasive and costs about a tenth of the price of using a manned helicopter to do the work, according to The Seattle Times. Matt Pickett, who helped coordinate one such project for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that drones “have the potential to change the way scientists do marine monitoring.” So far, applications include mapping Chinook spawning grounds, surveying marine debris and assessing avalanche risk.

Although the public doesn't seem as concerned about scientific drones as about police drones, a PR campaign by Toscano’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is nonetheless underway in the Northwest to help drones shed their nefarious image.

Fire monitoring

Fire lookouts are so old school. As fire season got underway in May, the U.S. Forest Service hoped to take a step into the future by using drones to monitor wildfires from above. But as so often happens, their plans were thwarted by bureaucratic red tape. According to the Missoulian, the FAA requires any drone in U.S. airspace to be in constant visual range of its pilot, which isn’t feasible in remote, smoky areas. Still, test programs in Texas, Alaska and Washington are exploring the potential of drones to save lives and better control wildfires.

The FAA is required to release new rules for domestic drone use by 2015, and some fire scientists hope the changes will expedite the use of drones as fire monitors. But for now, at least, the romantic vision of a man, a fire tower and a stack of books lives on.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

Perhaps in an attempt to keep the paparazzi in Hollywood and out of the Gem State, an Idaho law passed on July 1 forbids the use of drones to conduct “unwarranted” surveillance or to “inappropriately” snoop on somebody — though it’s unclear how those terms will be interpreted. An Associated Press report suggests the law is aimed at media hounds who would send camera-toting drones over  Sun Valley estates to photograph celebrities.

Border patrol

A sampling of anti-drone protest signs

Of the six states to have passed laws regulating the use of drones, Texas, notably, makes an exception for drones used in patrolling the Mexican border. There, as in New Mexico and Arizona, border agents no longer have to creep through thorny bushes, swim rivers or give chase in the sweltering heat -- they can leave those unpleasant activities to migrants, while Customs and Border Protection agents control drones from the comfort of an air-conditioned office. CBP already uses Predator drones to detect illegal border crossings, but according to the Atlantic Wire, new documents suggest drones may soon be used to deploy “non-lethal weapons” designed to immobilize “targets.” Not people, of course. Just targets.

Hunting

No, hunters aren’t using drones to track down wolves: They’re going drone-hunting!

After the revelation that the National Security Agency collected millions of Americans’ phone records, Deer Trail, Colo. resident Phillip Steel proposed an ordinance that would allow residents to shoot down any unmanned aircraft that flies over their town of 550 people, 55 miles east of Denver. The Atlantic Wire reports that Steel has never seen a drone in the region, but nonetheless worries about their potential to infringe on civil liberties. (Apparently less worrisome is the legality of shooting down federal property.)

If Steel’s ordinance passes an Aug. 6 vote, any resident with a valid hunting license will be able to pay an additional $25 for what essentially amounts to a drone tag, raising money for the town and also protecting residents from meddling feds.

Hobby drone mounted with a GoPro camera
Big kid toys

You know those little helicopters that everyone gets for Christmas and then breaks by New Year’s because they’ve crashed them into the ceiling? Those are drones too, but they’re only the beginning. Hobbyists are using that basic concept to make bigger, stronger and more capable toys, sinking tens of thousands of dollars into them, mounting them with HD video cameras, and forming clubs with other engineering geeks.

Colleges in Arizona and elsewhere are now offering courses and concentrations in drone building, and many schools also have their own drone-enthusiast clubs.

Animal rights

PETA couldn’t possibly let something as big as a drone fly by without getting involved. The left-wing animal rights group has announced plans to send drones over factory farms, hunting grounds and "other venues where animals routinely suffer and die” to spot infractions.

Farmers and hunters, understandably, are none too pleased — but maybe they’ll have their own drones on hand to retaliate.

Photo credits, in order: Flickr users Abayomi Azikiwe, Steve Rhodes and Don McCullough.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News.

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