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Commercial drones taking off

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Starting this summer, solar-powered drones from New Mexico will soar above raging wildland blazes to offer a critical eye in the sky to firefighters battling flames below.

Silent Falcon flight operations director Trevor Briggs shows how the drone’s infrared camera attaches to the aircraft’s belly. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The drones, made by Albuquerque-based Silent Falcon UAS Technologies, are part of a fleet of unmanned aerial systems being deployed for the first time this year under a new U.S. Department of Interior contract for air support companies to dispatch commercial drones as needed to wildfires in all 50 U.S. states. One of those companies, Montana-based Bridger Aerospace, subcontracted Silent Falcon to deploy its solar-powered drones whenever the feds call for assistance.

Until now, government agencies permitted only small, helicopter-like drones, or hovercraft, to fly near fires. The Silent Falcon, however, is a winged plane built to fly long distances for hours on end, providing detailed, real-time imaging of everything in a broad swath of area below. It’s equipped with infrared cameras and other sensors that allow it to operate in adverse conditions, enabling it to see through smoke from wildfires and identify hot spots.

Company CEO John Brown with the fully-assembled Silent Falcon. Brown launched Silent Falcon UAS Technologies in 2010 in Albuquerque. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Federal authorization to use such unmanned systems marks a new milestone in the emerging commercial drone industry, said Silent Falcon CEO John Brown. Although the government still maintains tight restrictions on operations in civilian airspace, it’s slowly opening the skies to more exploratory uses while the Federal Aviation Administration works on the rules and regulations needed to safely allow drones to fly unencumbered over urban and rural areas.

That, in turn, is encouraging industry to test a huge range of commercial uses, from aerial inspection of remote infrastructure and industrial operations to mapping and surveying of real estate and construction sites.

“We’ve seen a sea change in the market, starting last year and picking up even more this year,” Brown said. “Companies and government agencies are seeing broad commercial applications for unmanned aerial systems, and it’s creating huge demand for services.”

George Bye of Bye Aerospace Inc. in Colorado, which helped launch Silent Falcon in 2010, said a “cultural change” in attitude is driving commercial markets forward.

“A few years ago, drones were a pioneering concept that elicited interest with skepticism, but that’s entirely gone away,” Bye said. “The use of robotic planes is now fully accepted. It’s phenomenal how fast it’s changed.”

A critical turning point came in August 2016, when the FAA approved the first-ever rules and regulations for limited use of civilian drones in domestic skies. Under the FAA’s “Part 107” restrictions, licensed operators can now fly small aircraft of under 55 pounds up to 400 feet in the air, although only during daytime. Ground controllers must keep all craft within their line of sight and avoid flying over people.

Payload engineer Daniel Bowen attaches a propeller to the Silent Falcon, which the company is preparing to ship to Nevada for wildfire-related operations.

That cracked the door open for the first time for hobbyists, commercial operators and government agencies to begin flying drones, generating a flood of activity. To date, about 120,000 “pilots” have received drone operating licenses under Part 107. And over 1 million unmanned systems are now registered with the FAA – more than all manned aircraft registered nationwide.

“Overnight it created a very sizable service industry for vertical flights to inspect small areas and infrastructure with multi-rotor drones,” Brown said. “Unmanned systems are now an ubiquitous part of all surveying and mapping operations of everything from power lines and pipelines to oil and gas operations, construction sites and real estate.”

The Teal Group, a Virginia-based aerospace and defense analysis firm, estimates the civilian and military drone markets reached $3 billion in the U.S. last year and will grow to $8.7 billion by 2026. Worldwide, market value hit $7 billion and will grow to $22 billion by 2026, said Teal Group Director of Corporate Analysis Philip Finnegan.

“The market is just beginning,” Finnegan said. “It’s still a nascent industry.”

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Washington, D.C. estimates more than 100,000 domestic UAS-related jobs will emerge in the next few years.

“We sifted through information provided in all Part 107 operator applications, and found four dozen types of UAS businesses,” said AUVSI spokesman Tom McMahon. “Apart from more than 100,000 pilots licensed, there’s all the support personnel and commercial services needed for operations.”

The Silent Falcon’s flight and location appear on a ground control center screen.

In New Mexico, at least a dozen companies have emerged from participants in DroneU, an Albuquerque-based school that offers in-person and online courses about drones while preparing pilots for Part 107 license exams. Commercial activities include aerial photography, real estate videography, and land reclamation and mining-remediation surveys, said DroneU founder and Chief Technology Officer Paul Aitken.

“We train about 1,100 pilots a month on average nationwide,” Aitken said. “About 75 percent of them are people focused on business who want to turn their passion into a profit.”

Many companies and government agencies are also training their own personnel to incorporate drones into operations.

“All the federal agencies, like Fish and Wildlife and the Army Corps of Engineers, are actively researching how they can use drones to get their jobs done,” said University of New Mexico geography and environmental studies professor Chris Lippitt.

Lippitt is a co-founder of Albuquerque-based IBEX Aegis, which developed a software platform to turn drone imagery into high-tech reports that magnify and illuminate intricate details. The company, which launched last year, employs five now and expects to grow to 10 or 12 by next year, said co-founder and CEO Jesse Sprague.

“Our UAS partners collect imagery that we upload to our software,” Sprague said. “They need that to leverage the data provided. We mine the data for imagery and maps.”

Another Albuquerque company, Robotic Skies, has established an international network of repair and service centers where drones fly in like manned aircraft, said President and CEO Brad Hayden. The company received a first round of venture seed funding last year from the Kickstart Seed Fund in Utah and Sun Mountain Capital in Santa Fe.

“We have a global network of 150 independently-owned and operated service stations in 35 countries,” Hayden said.

Operators use this ground control center to fly the Silent Falcon and control all its imaging, sensing and air maneuvers. The flight plan and photos taken by the drone in flight appear on the screens.

For Silent Falcon, wildfire work is just the tip of the iceberg. Later this summer, it will begin aerial inspections of some 2,600 wells for an oil company.

“We’re excited about where things are going,” Brown said. “Industry use of drones is only just beginning, and we’re setting ourselves up to be at the forefront as it emerges.”

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