Drones considered for traffic management, agriculture- applications

The next traffic report you hear may come courtesy of an unmanned aircraft – or drone – flying in the skies near you.

A study by Georgia Tech University, commissioned by Georgia DOT, took a high-level look at how drones could be used in traffic management applications.

Researchers found more than 40 applications for the use of drones in traffic management.

The goal of the study was to “take a look into the future and see how this could help us,” said Georgene Geary, research engineer at GDOT. Geary said there could be safety benefits and cost savings, but there are still some unanswered questions for a sound cost-benefit analysis. Geary said outstanding issues include federal regulations and privacy concerns.

Potential uses for drones include everything from traffic management to inspections of traffic signals after installation or sampling vehicle speed along particular corridors. Drones could also be used for other GDOT tasks such as inspecting bridges for damage, conducting airport flight path inspections or monitoring wildlife along intracoastal waterways, such as birds nesting in the Savannah Harbor area, the study found.

The actual use of drones in Georgia could be a few years out.

GDOT expects it would likely contract out operations of unmanned aircraft, rather than buy its own drones. For now, it’s generally illegal to use unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes. The Federal Aviation Administration is still developing regulations to cover unmanned aircraft, with the first proposed rule expected later this year. The FAA has been tasked by Congress to come up with a plan to integrated unmanned aircraft into the airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

Geary said GDOT’s use of drones hinges on the FAA regulations in development.

“You want to make sure it’s safe. You don’t want to affect air travel… I know there’s still a privacy concern, too,” she said.

Javier Irizarry, a lead author of the study at Georgia Tech, said he expects that once the FAA regulations that enable commercial use of drones are complete and issues like insurance coverage are worked out, “I think there’s going to be a lot more people using it. Technology evolves very fast and it gets cheaper very quickly,” Irizarry said.

While Georgia is biding time for the FAA regulations, California’s Silicon Valley is looking warily at the drone issue because of the privacy issues.

Two California legislators have introduced drone technology laws.

Both bills address the issue of drones being used to watch Californians. One of the bills requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to monitor residents with the exception that surveillance would be allowed in an emergency situation in which police or the public safety is in danger.

The bills also make it illegal to arm a drone with a weapon or use the drone as a weapon.

The Obama administration has ordered the FAA to write comprehensive rules by September 2015 for integrating drones into national air space. The drone industry is expected to grow by 700 percent by 2020, meaning that an estimated 10,000 drones will be in the air if the FAA authorizes their use.

Another potential non-military use of drones is on the American farm.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is projecting that 90 percent of drone usage will be for agriculture. Japan has used farming drones for about 15 years.

Advocates claim that drones provide crucial data for more efficient farming. Pilots on the ground control drones equipped with infrared cameras and sensors that collect data on insect activity, watering, livestock migration and crop yields. In some cases, software allows drones to fly on autopilot, eliminating the need for a pilot at all. The imagery and sensor data facilitate efficient farming and save farmers time and frustration, according to the association.

Large tracts of farmland without any people would reduce the danger of human injuries, casualties and property damage with the use of drones in agriculture, proponents say.

“It’s going to catch on rapidly,” said Wayne Smith, executive director of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. “There is just an awful lot of interest in it.”

Smith said that more than one-third of the farmers in his state will use drones by 2017 and he expects similar results across the nation.