September 20, 2018
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Drones that reconstruct accidents, monitor crops could put 800 Mainers to work

By Lori Valigra
Updated:

A new fire-fighting weapon flew onto the scent of a five-alarm fire that gutted a former textile mill in Sanford last June: a drone taking live video that showed the fire department hot spots where they could direct their hoses.

The drone, deployed by the York County Emergency Management agency, is part of a growing trend in Maine and nationwide to use the remote-controlled vehicles with cameras in business and public safety applications. At least one trade organization believes that trend will create hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic activity, as more Mainers are trained and employed to fly and manage the drones.

“Drones add value to the first responders’ world,” said Arthur Cleaves, director of the York County Emergency Management Agency in Alfred. “That fire was our most spectacular drone use. Assistant Fire Chief Stephen Cutter said he really appreciated seeing the footage [on a TV monitor in the fire truck].”

The York County EMA started using drones in October 2015, and now owns five aircraft that it shares with the 29 towns in the county and other government agencies. It has 14 volunteers on call who are FAA-certified drone pilots.

Businesses are using drones to track crop yields in Aroostook County potato fields, manage timberland in remote parts of the state, find downed utility lines, inspect bridges and show real estate for sale. Emergency responders also use them to locate missing persons or assess accident, fire and hazardous waste scenes.

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), drones could mean big business for the state. By 2025, drone applications are expected to create 810 jobs in Maine and contribute $79 million to the state’s economy, according to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit that aims to advance drone and robot use based in Arlington, Virginia. That’s up from 183 jobs in 2015 and close to $18 million in economic benefit.

Searching for missing people, assessing accident scenes

In mid-January a drone captured international headlines when rescue workers guided it to drop a flotation device to two swimmers caught in a rip tide in Australia.

“There are lots of jobs where drones can be used,” said Maj. Mark Hyland, spokesman for the Maine Wing Civil Air Patrol.

Drones are known for doing dull, dangerous and dirty work. Hyland said they can help keep first responders safe at a hazardous materials scene and manage traffic when a king tide floods shore roads in Biddeford, for instance.

In December 2016, the Bangor Police Department also used a volunteer pilot, from the Down East Emergency Medicine Institute, a search and rescue operation in Orono, to search for a missing 29-year-old man.

Maine State Police | BDN
Maine State Police | BDN
According to Maine State Police, drones can be used to help reconstruct and clear accident scenes, like this one in China, Maine.

The Maine State Police has used drones extensively since last summer to reconstruct accident scenes. Local police departments are also looking into buying their own drones, including the Windham Police Department.

It normally takes Windham detectives two hours to map a vehicle crash scene and another three hours to draw it.

“With mapping software we can fly a grid pattern in 15-20 minutes,” said Windham Detective Eugene Gallant. The department plans to buy its first drone in April and deploy it in late spring. The drone will cost about $3,000, with software another $2,000.

Windham Detective Jason Burke said homeowners have expressed concern about privacy, a concern he said he understands.

“We will only let our UAV fly over public roads,” he said. Otherwise detectives need the permission of the chief officer or captain or a search warrant to use a drone near a house or business, for example, in a standoff situation.

“Drones in police work and law enforcement in general are a sensitive topic,” said Wade Betters, public information officer at the Bangor Police Department, which uses pilots at DEEMI and has no plans to buy its own drones.

The Brunswick Police Department could become the first in the country to use drones to watch for trespassers along rail lines, and by extension the first in Maine to use them to monitor potential criminal activity, according to the Portland Press Herald. Local police officials there told the newspaper the drones would not be used for law enforcement, but for education and deterrence.

Putting drones to work

Drones are helping farmers survey their acreage to count crops and target problems in the field, such as diseased plants or empty spots.

“UAVs can’t replace boots on the ground, but they can make tending crops vastly more efficient because we can tell the farmer exactly where to go. Knowing where and when to take action can add tens of thousands of dollars to a crop operation,” said Douglas Cuffman, president of SwarmAG, a drone, software and data analysis company with offices in Portland and Presque Isle.

Lori Valigra | BDN
Lori Valigra | BDN
Douglas Cuffman, CEO of SwarmAG, adjusts one of the drones his company uses for its precision agriculture service to survey large fields of potatoes and other crops. Drones can count the number of plants that sprouted and look for empty spaces to estimate the production of large tracts of farmland. The drones also can take images of the plants for detection of disease, pests or drought areas.

Because of Maine’s short growing season, the company is expanding into the midwest and adding new services locally.

“We plan to inspect farmers’ storage facilities in the winter. We’ll look at the roofs where the potatoes are stored to see if there is heat loss,” he said. “Farmers can use the information to assure the insurance company their potatoes are safe.”

Other companies are using drones to show real estate for sale or to monitor cliff erosion near multi-million homes, David Price, co-founder of the Drone Consulting Group in Duxbury, Massachusetts, told attendees of a Feb. 17 conference on drone applications for business at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Blue Marble Geographics of Hallowell sells software that can measure the size of a pile at a gravel yard and create a grid to reconstruct an accident scene. MaineUAV of Augusta sells aerial videography and photography services, including for weddings.

Help wanted: drone pilots

There are 417 licensed remote pilots in Maine, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airmen Certification System. That’s not enough to fill the demand, said Thomas Abbott, project manager for UMA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations Center. The Federal Aviation Administration only recently approved non-recreational drone use, in August 2016.

Commercial drone operators must have an FAA drone pilot license or certificate. They also must know the rules, such as not flying over 400 feet or over people or moving cars. They also must keep the drone in the operator’s line of sight and not fly within five miles of a commercial airport. In special circumstances, they can get waivers from the FAA.

Lori Valigra | BDN
Lori Valigra | BDN
Thomas Abbott, project manager for the University of Maine at Augusta’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations Center, said he expects more than 800 jobs in the drone industry to be created in Maine by 2025.

UMA became the state’s first school in October 2016 to offer a program to train potential drone operators before they apply for FAA certification. It now offers three different courses for drone pilots to study for their license, including a $400, entry-level class that runs for 32 hours.

Abbott said UMA plans to move parts of the program from Augusta to Brunswick Landing’s Hangar 5 this spring so students can get more hands-on flying experience. He also wants to offer summer courses to high school students there as part of their STEM education.

Though potential pilots are just starting to graduate from the program, the Maine Warden Service and others are looking to collaborate with UMA to attract them once they have their license.

“We need people who use drones regularly,” said Maine Wing Civil Air Patrol’s Hyland. “We want to use UMA faculty and students to fly drones.”

Each drone typically costs from $1,000 to $35,000. With infrared and other special cameras and software, the total price can escalate to $100,000 or more, said Price. Some cameras can take video, while others take photos that can be joined together to create video-like images. An average drone can fly about 27 minutes.

The price of drones has come down significantly since the York County EMA began using them in 2015. Cleaves said the agency’s original purchase was for $20,000, but it now has two drones that cost less than $1,000, though adding a camera can double that price.

Drone pilots can make a good living, Abbott said. A photographer or videographer can make $1,600 to $2,400 per shoot for a real estate company or a wedding. Drone pilot salaries average $70,000 a year, according to PayScale.com.

But flying sophisticated, high-cost drones isn’t for the faint of heart. The consultant Price, who wears a heart monitor and limits his drone outings to 40 minutes each, gets especially anxious when surveying bridges, which create unpredictable wind tunnels under them and threaten to blow the expensive machines right out of the air.

“Sometimes my heart rate goes up to 140,” he said. A normal resting heart rate for adults is 60 to 100 beats per minute.

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