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February 19, 2018 Focus: Communications & Technology

Commercial drone use is taking off, as more Maine companies use them on the job

Photo / Tim Greenway Marnie Grumbach, founder and partner at the marketing firm Fluent IMC, with partner Peter Anania, left, and Bryan Roche, PR and digital strategist, near Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook. Anania, shown here operating a DJI Mavic Pro drone, says a camera mounted to the aerial technology gives client videos a sweeping, dynamic element.
Photo / Tim Greenway Brad Stout, president and CEO of Coutts Brothers, in the drone lab in Randolph with a DJI drone that the company uses for thermal and visual inspections of power lines.
Photo / Tim Greenway In the drone lab at Coutts Brothers in Randolph, a view of a DJI drone that the company uses for thermal and visual inspections of power lines.

The “bomb cyclone” that hit the Northeast last October resulted in tens of thousands of power outages.

Coutts Brothers, in Randolph, was commissioned by utilities to deploy unmanned aerial systems, commonly called drones (and also unmanned aerial vehicles), with thermal sensors to locate power line problems due to issues like fallen trees or broken poles. It was a fast and easy way to send out eyes in the sky to quickly monitor the situation.

“We did that a few nights, starting at the beginning of the storm, so that the work orders could be ready the next morning and the crews could get to where they needed to be,” says Coutts Brothers General Manager Brad Stout.

The use of drones for commercial applications, like the utility line inspection example above, has steadily grown in Maine. They're acclaimed as being faster, easier, safer and cheaper in many situations than deploying humans, as well as being able to maneuver in tight spaces and provide bird's eye views that can otherwise be more costly or dangerous to obtain than, say, sending a person up in a helicopter or climbing a telephone pole. And they can carry all manner of equipment, like cameras and heat sensors, which communicate the view in a variety of ways.

A booming market

Photo / Tim Greenway
Peter Anania, left, demonstrates the Fluent IMC's drone in Westbrook as Bryan Roche and Marnie Grumbach look on.

There are rotary drones and fixed-wing drones that can be programmed to fly autonomously or be piloted either by a remote controller or an app. They can be programmed to avoid obstacles, adjust camera settings on the fly, provide first-person viewing capability and capture location information on-the-go through GPS units.

There are three main segments of the drone market: consumer-hobbyist; commercial and government, including military and public safety.

Goldman Sachs forecasts businesses and civil governments will spend $13 billion on drones between 2017 and 2020.

There are more than 44,000 commercial drones, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which started requiring registration as of April 2016. The FAA expects 10 times that number by 2021.

“The military has been using drone technology for a long time, but it's not necessarily been widely known,” says Patrick Cunningham, CEO of Blue Marble Geographics, in Hallowell, a mapping software company that recently introduced Pixels-to-Points, specifically aimed at drone use by transforming drone-collected images into 3D representations. “But it started to become a more common commercial tool. And it's definitely grown.”

Many uses

Drones are gaining a foothold in construction, real estate, agriculture, mining, energy, film production, law enforcement, search and rescue, GIS mapping and more.

At Fluent IMC, a Westbrook integrated marketing communications firm founded by Marnie Grumbach, partner Peter Anania last year obtained a drone pilot license to enhance the firm's video capabilities. The firm is using a four-propeller Phantom 3 manufactured by the Chinese firm DJI. Its features include GPS, stabilization and auto-hover technology, 25-minute fly time, bright LED lights that help the pilot confirm its direction, and a small but high-quality still and video camera. Anania can control the camera with an app on his phone.

Fluent IMC created a recruitment video for Associated Builders & Contractors of Maine incorporating drone footage — adding a sweeping, dynamic element — at a commercial construction job site, alternating with traditional interview video.

“We programmed the drone to be dead center to the building, then backed it up and did a circle around the building,” says Anania. “Another shot is to get close to a building and have the drone back away.”

Drone footage evokes grandeur even in mundane elements, like a swooping shot of rural roads in Fluent's rebranding video for telecommunications provider Otelco.

“Historically, aerial video was shot from a helicopter or maybe a crane, which was pretty expensive and took a long time to set up,” says Grumbach. “This is faster and more economical. And it's a perspective we can't capture from the ground.”

Seeing the forest (and the trees)

The Wheatland Lab at the University of Maine's School of Forest Resources in Orono is introducing drone technology to various industry professionals.

“We've worked with Verso at their Androscoggin mill, using imagery recorded with our UAV to produce 3-dimensional models of chip and log stockpiles to quickly get estimates of volume, with little to no interruption of the mill's operation,” says aerial survey pilot Dave Sandilands. That involved deploying a DJI Phantom 4 equipped with the vehicle's stock camera modified to record infrared wavelengths to track vegetative growth, then snapping photos in quick succession for image overlap.

“That enabled us to use our image processing software to make three-dimensional models of the piles, and turn that into a quick volume estimation in a safe manner,” Sandilands says. The footage obviated the subjective process of employees eyeballing the piles. “They can't see the tops of the piles, which might be arranged in odd shapes or have hollow spots. Using the UAV, they see the entire picture.”

Another project had a forestry undergraduate working with the Seven Islands Land Co. on forest stand reconnaissance, to see if that work could be done more efficiently, comprehensively and safely versus walk-throughs. They deployed a UAV from the roadside, flew it over the stand, and could judge factors like terrain, proximity to wetlands and harvest operations. Other projects will use the lab's UAS-flown imagery and processing techniques to develop habitat maps for wildlife conservation.

“We're seeing a surge of interest in forestry and natural resources,” says Sandilands. “People are taking notice and saying UAVs will make things easier.”

Enhanced accuracy

Drones are great for road surveys, says David Price, co-founder of the Association of Professional Drone Pilots in Massachusetts. For engineering firm Greenman-Pedersen Inc., Price flew a drone to survey Commercial Street in Portland.

“One of the coolest applications for drones in commercial work is making orthophotos,” he says. “The drone is pre-programmed to fly a grid mission and it takes a bunch of downward-facing photos. The cool part is, each photo is geo-tagged — embedded in the photo is latitude, longitude and height. With simple software, you stitch the pictures together and you have a huge high-definition photo of the area. The accuracy level can be plus or minus an inch. And if you have a survey crew go out beforehand to mark the ground, you can tie the photos to that and get accuracies to the centimeter. So the drone can enhance a surveyor's work for a fraction of the cost.”

Drone use is gaining currency, says Price.

“In 2016 and 2017, people would say to me, 'Ooh, that's a drone!' Now people are saying, 'This is what I need a drone for.' I feel like 2018 will be the year of realization with drones. People are really going to start seeing how drones can help with different types of jobs.”

That interest could create difficulties, though. Areas of concern, Price says, include the potential for midair collisions with planes and helicopters, as well as unlicensed commercial pilots and unregistered drones that make them difficult to track. Others mention the possibility of failing equipment, incorrectly pre-programmed flight data, and drones flown beyond line of sight. All agree that education of drone operators is key.

Pilot training

To that end, the University of Maine at Augusta's UAS Pilot Training Center, Maine's first university-level UAS course, started October 2016 and has trained about 130 new drone pilots.

The center's Tom Abbott and Daniel Leclair, project manager and program coordinator respectively, see burgeoning interest among commercial sectors.

“The students vary widely, from different professions — businesses and government agencies that are now starting to use drones on a day-to-day basis,” says Abbott.

The program initially attracted most interest from realtors interested in photographing from on high houses they were selling. Others include professional photographers and land managers.

“We've had folks who manage offshore islands, off Maine, and use drones to 'tour' the property to see what's washed up onshore and where they need to repair things,” Abbott says. Newly minted drone pilots survey roads and crops; do precision agricultural spraying of fertilizer and pesticide; and aid accident investigations. New pilots are even starting businesses to offer drone services to other businesses. Abbott predicts that package delivery by drone will soon come to Maine, to address “last mile” rural roads: “UPS might hook a package to a drone, send the drone up to deliver it, then the drone will catch up with the truck in the next village.”

He adds, “It's widespread and it's getting bigger by the day.”

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