In 2014, by Richie Fletcher’s estimation, two people were using drones in Durango.
Today, Fletcher, owner of media production firm Solo Arts and a drone enthusiast, estimates 36 people are now using drones in town. He has four.
Uses for unmanned aerial vehicles, by virtually all accounts, will only grow.
Everything drone, from their use aiding farmers and oil and gas operators to rogue operators interfering in firefighting efforts during the Lightner Creek Fire last year, was discussed by a three-member panel last week at the Durango Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Tech Knowledge Conference held at the DoubleTree Hotel.
The panel was made up of:
Bruce Black, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force involved in its unmanned aerial vehicle systems programs and consultant on drone technology.
Riley Fieselman, owner of SkyCapture, a firm that specializes in using drones for various commercial uses.
Brandt Holmes, founder and owner of Insula Gladio, a firm that provides a network of 10,000 pilots to provide unmanned aerial vehicle services.
“People are changing the world, and sometimes it’s a struggle to keep up,” Fieselman said. Drones, he said, “will increase efficiency and safety, and just make everyone’s life easier, better and safer.”
Changing industriesThe functionality of drones is transforming an array of industries. Perhaps the two most important to Southwest Colorado might be agriculture and the natural gas and oil industries.
Black said Williams Co. drone use has drastically cut down the time, work hours and expense of keeping tabs on the health of its 6,000 miles of pipelines in the San Juan Basin.
“They’re replacing months and months of inspections with single flyovers,” he said. It has drastically increased the company’s efficiency in detecting issues, such as washed-out pipes.
Williams is required to have flags along regular intervals of its pipeline to alert people of its presence.
“Ninety percent of Williams crews’ time was spent learning where flags are down and replacing them,” Black said. The use of drones has drastically cut the expense of this mundane chore.
Side benefits include freeing staff time to take on higher priority items for pipeline maintenance and safety.
In addition, Black noted, the inspection rate for wells by the Bureau of Land Management is once every three years, a rate that could be vastly increased in frequency with the adoption of drones.
Methane leaks not apparent to the eye, he noted, are visible with a drone equipped with an infrared sensor.
Far more sophisticated unmanned aerial systems available to the military, such as a Global Hawk, can map a 2-square-mile area in one pass, in 1 second, and provide pictures with granular resolution, Black said.
The combination of drones and sensors has revolutionized agriculture, with techniques now widespread in California and the Midwest being adopted on Southwest Colorado farms and ranches.
“You catch problems earlier,” Fieselman said. “To the eye, it all looks green. An infrared sensor knows when a plant is 100 percent healthy, when it’s 75 percent healthy, when it’s 50 percent healthy.”
In the past, farmers walked the fields looking for problems, and when they found them, Fieselman said, “they would assume the worst.”
Now, instead of an entire field being sprayed with an insecticide, he said a drone with the proper sensor can narrow the infestation down to a 20-square-yard problem, allowing the farm to avoid an entire spray of the field.
“Previously,” he said, “There was often no way to know the extent of a problem. Now, you can walk the field with a hand sprayer and hit only the problem area, saving money, time and effort.”
Livestock management has been another field where drone technology has been a game-changer.
Herd inspections that often took days and involved a lot of ranch hands are now complete with a single drone flyover of the herd.
“Commercial applications are becoming more and more common,” Fieselman said. “We’re teaching things to ourselves as we go.”
Drone inspections are now common in downtown Denver building projects.
In California, where technological innovation is a couple of years ahead, “We are told there is no large contractor now without a drone department,” Fieselman said.
RegulationsUnfortunately, the allure, increasing affordability and ubiquity of drones also means they are easy to misuse and even use illegally
“You can’t necessarily unbox a drone and fly it,” Holmes said
As a hobbyist, you’re likely going to use it to make video for yourself, he said. But you must abide by the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules, and must register and operate it under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.
If you make money with the drone, under federal regulations, you must obtain a waiver, which usually takes about 90 days, that will allow you to fly it at night or over people.
In 2017, La Plata County adopted policy for drone use. In January 2018, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office adopted policy for use of drones for use in search and rescue operations and to protect privacy.
Holmes noted that misuse of drones by hobbyists tars the entire drone industry and said he still hears disgruntled comments about hobbyists illicitly using drones during the Lightner Creek Fire in June 2017.
The illegal use of the drones over the fire forced a helicopter to drop a load of fire retardant elsewhere rather than contribute it to the firefighting effort.
“It’s easy to go rogue,” Fieselman said.