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8 Ways Texans are Innovating with Drones

texas usaThe term “drone” usually brings to mind military use or the neighborhood kid’s new toy. However, individuals and large organizations are finding drone technology to be a useful tool. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts by 2020, there will be seven million drones flying over the United States. Currently, the FAA estimates there are 1.5 hobbyist drones flying around and 500,000 drones being used for commercial purposes. What about Texas? The state has 450,000 registered drone operators. That’s the second highest in the nation, just behind California. Those numbers were collected in May 2016, and had grown from 325,000 just a few months before in February 2016. What are operators doing with all those drones?

Here are 8 ways Texans are innovating with drones.

Insurance Inspections

Tornado DamageAllstate announced it was sending in drones to inspect hail-damaged homes in South Texas this past fall, a first for the company. Representatives said the company inspected more than 20 homes, using this project as a trial run to test image quality, damage analysis tools and customer response. Research and development are key for insurance companies. When a major weather event occurs, immediate access is usually restricted, or ongoing weather conditions prevent claims professionals from servicing customers. Drones can go where people can’t, completing physical property inspections and helping to process claims quicker. After the success of drone usage in Texas, Allstate deployed them one month later to assist in parts of Florida and Georgia that were hit by Hurricane Matthew.

Law Enforcement

When an Alpine, Texas college student went missing last October, the neighboring counties deployed their drone fleets to search an area of more than 400 square miles. Similarly, about a year ago Corpus Christi police used a drone equipped with FLIR thermal imaging technology to quickly apprehend two suspects that were carrying firearms near an elementary school. “A drone can ‘see’ a situation before an officer is sent into danger, and can help with evacuating citizens,” explains Lt. Brook Rollins, commander of the Technical Services Division with the Arlington police department. While no law enforcement agency uses drones to kill, they are invaluable for tactical surveillance, surveying heavily damaged buildings and adding a layer of safety for officers.

Saving Lives

This sounds like a story line from a science fiction book, but it really happened in Forth Worth in May 2015. A drone pilot worked with the Joshua Fire department first to spot a stranded truck that had been swept off the road. He was able to guide rescue personnel to the remote location and save the driver. Later the same day, he used his drone to fly a rope to two people who were stranded in their home. Once the couple grabbed the rope, rescuers used it to pass life preservers. Interestingly, the drone pilot is just a hobbyist with a searchlight attached to his drone. However, stories like these are prompting emergency agencies to evaluate the value of drones in their operations.

Big Oil

Large oil companies use drones to monitor oil fields. Drones have the potential to create huge cost and safety benefits in the oil industry. According to Chamber Corp., some facilities shut down as many as 26 times per year for inspections. Each time, scaffolding must be built and torn down. Industrial plants, including the oil industry can greatly benefit from inspections and monitoring via drone. Oil spills can be prevented through more thorough inspections, or at least identified quickly with drone monitoring.

Marketing

Businesses used to have to pay huge amounts for aerial photography. From for-profit companies like golf courses and amusement parks to non-profits and government agencies, many are taking advantage of creating marketing materials that used to be cost-prohibitive. Imagine how valuable an aerial view of a city is to a Chamber of Commerce recruiting a large corporation. Beautiful aerial landscapes showcase the region. Video production companies are capitalizing on this emerging marketing technique.

Agriculture

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems says agriculture accounts for 80 percent of all drone use. A study from WinterGreen Research predicts the market for agricultural drones will grow to as much as $3.7 billion by 2022. Until last June only farmers with a pilot’s license could legally operate drones. However, new FAA guidelines are opening the agriculture field up even more. Farmers can obtain certification for commercial use by simply taking a written test or with the approval of the Transportation Security Administration. Farmers find drone use an invaluable time saver. Flood waters in Texas this year washed away sections of levees that hold water in. Farmers can spot problems like that within minutes, a task that used to take hours or days on foot or by four-wheeler. Catching water waste quickly is critical for farmers since the Lower Colorado River Authority allots each farmer a water ration and can cut them off if they detect waste.

Architecture and Construction

house constructionDrones are certainly a practical business tool for construction and architecture companies. Drone imaging allows architects to quickly create 3D renderings of structures, showing exactly how they will fit on a property. Even once a project has begun, the aerial views provided by drones can monitor progress, improve stakeholder communication and be used in future marketing videos. Additionally, they can deliver data on places that are simply too unsafe for human workers. For example, Austin Commercial is using drone technology in building a new 32-floor high-rise in downtown Houston. “(By using a drone) companies can get a better view, a safer view of their assets as opposed to hanging off a side of a building or using a manned helicopter.” said Jeremiah Johnson with the robotics company 3DR. Drones help identify problems early, ensuring projects stay on time and within budget. Austin Commercial says drones help to cut back on overtime by reducing the amount of mistakes and projects that have to be redone. Drones can also monitor finished projects. For example, they can be used for bridge inspections, highway troubleshooting or to monitor railroad track wear and tear.

“(By using a drone) companies can get a better view, a safer view of their assets as opposed to hanging off a side of a building or using a manned helicopter.”

Environmental Monitoring

Drones promise to be a powerful tool to help conserve and protect the environment. Texas A&M has been monitoring the amount of scarring on seagrass by boat propellers since 2007. They have traditionally used costly aerial images taken by manned airplanes flying at an altitude of about 2,000 ft. Last year they compared these images with ones taken by drones. What did their comparison show? “This experiment showed that with proper flight planning for weather conditions, mapping of prop scars with a small UAS can be a viable alternative to more costly, piloted airborne surveys,” stated Dr. Michael Starek, assistant professor of engineering. There are numerous other environmental applications. Drones can monitor animal populations without invading their space. They can track conservation efforts, migration, habitat maintenance, flood assessment or red tide along the coastline.

The market for unmanned drones has been called the next “Silicon Valley.” The business applications for drone usage in Texas are staggering. One economic report from AUVSI found that Texas has the potential to gain 8,200 jobs and more than $6.5 billion in economic impact over the next decade from drone integration. From small businesses like real estate firms to large oil conglomerates, all stand to gain. Because of Texans’ dedication to leading innovation, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has a credentialing program with the specific goal of spurring expansion in the state.

About the Author

Adam Shore

Adam is a Central Florida alum who recently left the Orlando area to relocate to Denver, where he enjoys shooting aerial photography of the Rocky Mountains. And to ski. He is a member of the AMA and was been a drone photographer since the early days of the industry. Follow him @dronegenuity.