Old Saybrook — Out of a beautiful fall sky, a drone – an unmanned aerial vehicle – lands outside the Saybrook Point Inn to a rapturous reception from a group of business executives.
The green-and-black device is about 3 feet across, carries a video camera and weighs less than five pounds. It looks like a tiny helicopter with four rotors. The demonstration was arranged by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. The CBIA’s Eric Brown says this conference, the first of its kind in the state is about showing the business community the real potential of drones.
“So obviously most people are familiar with drone technology when it comes to military operations. But both in scale of the vehicles and the technology involved, they’re now becoming important scientific tools as well as compliance tools,” Brown said.
Specifically in this setting, environmental compliance; most of the companies here are large utilities, drug companies or manufacturers, all of whom have to answer to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“There are a variety of sensors that can be used to monitor air quality, water quality and soil contamination,” Brown said, “and so this is becoming an important frontier for both regulatory agencies and for companies who have obligations to make sure their various activities are within environmental limits.”
The demonstration, including a precision, indoor flight, comes courtesy of professor Massimiliano Lega of the University of Naples, a former aerospace engineer turned environmental expert who’s something of a civilian drone pioneer.
Lega has worked with the Italian Coast Guard to map pollution on the country’s coastline. His technology has been responsible for apprehending tanker captains illegally dumping oil at sea, and he said that with a thermal imaging camera mounted on a drone, you can pinpoint a single outflow of pollution from a seaside coffee shop.
“We discovered that the drones or other types of aerial platform are the best way to have a special point of view on the environment,” Lega said.
Matthew Hackman runs an environmental consulting agency in Rhode Island, specializing in remediating contaminated sites.
“As you go to a property, you’re trying to map the property – kind of hard to do often on the ground, or it would be labor intensive, take multiple people surveying, etc. So the ability to get a reasonable accurate, high quality aerial video, especially close up, would be helpful.”
Aerial video is possible right now by hiring a plane and a pilot, but that could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Lega’s device can be hired in Europe right now for 500 euros a day — less than $700. And here there are amateur drones for hobby use that you can buy on Amazon for less than $100.
That’s something that concerns Brian Hearing. “They can be used for intellectual property theft,” he said, citing cases where drones with wifi hacking apparatus have landed on and hacked a business.”
Hearing is the founder of Drone Shield — his company makes an automated listening device that can warn you if a drone is near your property.
“Could you sit out there and listen for a drone? Possibly, if you know what you’re listening for. The benefit of using a computer to do this – it’s on 24/7, you can set it around the perimeter of your property to give you enough warning when one’s coming.”
Lots of companies are excited about the possibilities for reducing costs and cutting risk by using drones — for instance, farmers can use them for spraying pesticides or counting livestock, but Hearing says even in an industry that’s embraced the technology, there are mixed feelings.
“There’s been a great upswelling of farmers in the Midwest against the EPA. They’re accusing of using drones to take overhead shots. Farmers are a special case because their residence is on the same location as their business, so there are concerns about privacy there.”
All of this explosion of activity around drones is taking place in a legal gray area. The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to open U.S. airspace officially to civilian drones, and it may be 2015 before it formulates the rules for their use. In the meantime though, it’s issuing hundreds of special use permits — to police departments, university researchers and to companies — utilities that want to survey power lines or logging companies that want to take machinery into remote locations. Only eight states have laws on the books about drones, but more than 40 are discussing them, and in the absence of an FAA framework, that’s likely to lead to a confusing legal patchwork. Lega said that’s holding the industry back.
“But we have a lot of limits that are not only limits for the company that want to use drones, but is a big limit also for the people that want to develop drones.”
The rise of the drone has been compared to the advent of the automobile in the age of horsedrawn carriages. Those currently being made are the Model Ts of the age – technological marvels to be sure, but nothing compared to what’s to come.
And many businesses are all ears.