The Many Valuable Uses of Drones

May 18, 2017

Credit Vince LoPresti/Flickr via NPR

Virginia today opened the country's first runway built specifically for unmanned aerial vehicles. Many people call them drones and the federal government says nearly 830,000 are registered as required by law. Here in Virginia, they’re popular with hobbyists but are also finding important uses as Sandy Hausman reports.

“I can set the altitude, and I can move it into a position and then basically let go, and it will hold that.”

On a breezy spring day, Harry Gregori is showing a crowd at the Virginia Military Institute how his little drone – which weighs less than 50 pounds – can hold its own – hovering 25 feet above the parade grounds despite strong winds.  He has a business called Virginia UAS – short for unmanned aerial systems. For a price, it will provide aerial photographs of almost anything – from a marathon or parade to a farmer’s field.

“If you have crop land you want to check, you actually can do surveys to determine which areas need water or pesticides or fertilizer, so it can save a lot of money in terms of your operation.”

He says drones can also save lives during industrial inspections. 13 people are killed every day in a workplace accident – some of them falling from high places where inspections are needed.

“So if we can send up a drone to do that monthly check and maybe a person up just once a year, the risk is reduced significantly.”

And first responders have discovered many more valuable roles for drones.

“So imagine you’re looking for a person.  You can put a heat sensor on there, fly it out in the woods. It’ll pick up the person in the woods. If you have an automobile accident where emergency response people need to get out, maybe there’s a fire, you can get that drone up and check it out.  There are units that will actually carry a medical defibrillator. It might take an hour to drive there. You can get that drone over there in five minutes, and there are special programs being developed now for emergency response people to take advantage of the technology.”

What the nation is still trying to figure out is what risk drones themselves might pose.  The FAA, for example, is in the process of assessing the number of close calls involving drones and commercial aircraft. Also casting a nervous eye on the unmanned aircraft -- the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the FBI, Secret Service and Capitol Police.