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Environmental drones

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! A plane! A drone!

One year into a $260,000 two-year grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, [civil engineer Thom] Hardy and his crew of biologists, geographers and spatial analysts have used the drone to track bird habitat in Galveston Bay and the growth of invasive tamarisk on Texas rivers.

It has identified pockets of water in the drought-ravaged Blanco River for removing nonnative fish and conducted surveys of fly-fisherman on a portion of the Guadalupe River. The drone can track ecosystems along a proposed pipeline or power line route, Hardy said, and map canal vegetation to help weed control.

“If you need an image and take the pilot out of it, this is cheaper and quieter” and safer, he said.

Once launched, via a kind of bungee cord, the battery-powered plane can reach 60 miles per hour, though it typically flies at half that speed.

The drone generally flies at an altitude of 400 to 600 meters and has a range of roughly 10 miles. In each trip, the cameras can take up to 700 overlapping images, which the researchers upload to computers and inspect using spatial analysis software. After a whoosh on launch, the plane has a soft whinny, and silhouetted against the sky, it looks like a miniature version of a stealth fighter plane.

[…]

The Texas State drone program is one of several state or local agencies authorized to fly unmanned craft in Texas, according to a list the Federal Aviation Authority released in April in response to a suit from the Washington-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the A&M Texas Engineering Experiment Station headquartered in College Station, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Houston Police Department also have had authorization to operate drones, according to the list.

Seems like a pretty reasonable use of the technology, and as the story notes it’s a lot cheaper for researchers like these than hiring a Cessna to do the same work. But if you think this is a conspiracy theory waiting to happen, you’re not wrong.

In April, U.S. Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Ennis, co-chairmen of the congressional bipartisan privacy caucus, told the FAA acting administrator that they were concerned about “potential privacy implications” involving drones.

Austin-based conservative talk show host Alex Jones has taken those anxieties and amplified them. In a YouTube video taken at the Steiner Ranch and posted in late May, Jones and members of the Steiner family take turns firing weapons at remote-controlled helicopters meant to stand in for the drones. The video has been viewed nearly 500,000 times.

See the recent kerfuffle about non-existent “EPA drones” in Nebraska for the way this will eventually play out. I’d post a link to the Jones video but I fear for my sanity even looking for it.

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