In March 2013, Charlottesville was the first city in the United States to pass an anti-drone resolution, which declared Charlottesville a No Drone Zone. This moratorium ended July 1 and—you guessed it—the drones are here.
Darren Goodbar, an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, pilot in the Air National Guard, served overseas in Afghanistan as an operations manager for several aircraft. On September 14, he began working for Draper Aden Associates, a consulting engineering firm in Charlottesville, as the director of aerial services. His big idea: aerial surveying and mapping by drone technology.
“As surveyors and engineers, we’re just super excited to be able to see our entire site from a planning perspective,” says Kris Caister, the Western region survey manager at Draper Aden, “but also to work toward creating that survey-grade data so that we can do the good work to help out the community and our clients.”
Aside from using aerial technology for surveying, Goodbar says he’s also interested in providing area mapping and imagery after a natural disaster. For instance, if the city is hit by a derecho, and if communications are down and roads are flooded, he says, “I can be up in the air and survey Charlottesville and the county really quickly.” He says he would then be able to feed that data back to an emergency management department instantly, rather than trying to send an employee out in the dangerous environment. Drones must fly within the pilot’s visual line of sight, which is usually about half a mile from the launchpad.
Other local emergency services are considering the implementation of drone technology, including the Charlottesville Fire Department and Albemarle search and rescue teams.
Former Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner, who has a longtime interest in drone technology, says they can be used for pre-fire planning by providing images of buildings and roofs, which could later be used for reference during a fire.
“It also allows a photo capture of unit locations and fire conditions at separate times that can be used for comparison and for later incident critique and training,” he says.
Werner recalls that a drone from Virginia Tech was used in the search for Hannah Graham. Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding says his search and rescue teams are interested in the technology, as well.
“We’ve had several searches where even the mapping didn’t indicate small bodies of water that I’d like to have known about sooner than I did,” says Harding. He is concerned with the privacy regulations that come with flying a drone, and the department is working to learn more about the rules of flying unmanned aerial vehicles.
“There’s not much privacy left,” says the Rutherford Institute’s John Whitehead, who was involved with passing Charlottesville’s initial anti-drone resolution. He believes it would be beneficial for emergency services to have access to drone technology, but says it would be unconstitutional for police to use the gadgets, without a search warrant, to gather information that could be used against someone in the court of law.
Werner, a drone hobbyist, uses a DJI Phantom 3, which is capable of taking 1080p high-definition photos and 2K resolution videos.
“It was my research and my personal experience with my own drone which validated to me the extreme value that these devices will add to public safety,” he says.
Goodbar says the reason more people aren’t flying drones in more places is the regulatory environment currently in place by the Federal Aviation Administration. Currently, the FAA requires commercial entities to have a special exemption, a certificate of authorization, a registered aircraft and a licensed private pilot.
“That’s one of the big hurdles right now,” he says. “A lot of companies are waiting until that requirement goes away.” Goodbar believes this may no longer be a requirement in the near future.
According to Goodbar, drone technology is already being successfully implemented in Europe by DHL Express—the international express-mail service is experimenting with delivering medicine by drone and eventually hopes to be able to collect mail such as bills, greeting cards and small packages in a payload and deliver it to a remote island, making the sending and receiving of snail mail more effective and more cost-efficient than sending it by a manned aircraft, he says.
“So if you’re living on an island and you want to send a card to grandma or you need to pay your electric bill,” he says, “you give them that and, just like any other post office, they deliver it [by drone].”
In Wise County, officials are also testing the use of medicine delivery by drone. During a test a few weeks ago, Goodbar says a plane landed at an airport and dropped off a box, then a drone picked up the box and took it to a clinic. The next step would be flying the box from the clinic to a person’s household. Though this method isn’t immediately necessary, Goodbar says they’re planning for a potential snowstorm or natural disaster.
On September 12, Goodbar taught a class about drone technology at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and its attendees included people with commercial and recreational interests and drone advocates, as well. He taught about federal regulations, types of drones, flight safety and lesser-known industries that could benefit, such as agriculture and real estate.
Recreationally, Goodbar says there’s local interest in drone racing, called FPV, or first person view racing, where pilots wear goggles that allow them to see from their drone’s eyes and fly through a predetermined course. Red Bull is significantly invested in creating a national racing program in which drones could race at speeds of 75 miles per hour.
“It’s going to be nuts in the next three years,” Caister says about local drone use in general. “And in five years, it’s almost going to be commonplace.”