Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Brave new world with drone aircraft in hunters' and anglers' future

With the all-but-certain use of pilotless drone aircraft for domestic applications in the nation’s future, hunters, anglers and other outdoor types will also likely fall under these remotely controlled eyes in the sky.

Natural resources applications for such aircraft are virtually limitless. They run from watching for intrusion by Ontario commercial fishermen into Ohio’s share of Lake Erie to catching jack-lighting deer poachers to locating lost hikers.

Yet at the same time a whole host of nagging questions remain. The chief of these being potentially misdirected intrusion into the private lives of the nation’s citizens.

Not surprisingly then all of this scares the be jabbers out of those folks who decry blanket government surveillance on its own citizens.

Even so, nothing less than the U.S. Constitution has stepped into the fray. The nations’ courts have repeatedly deemed the use of domestic spy drone aircraft does not violate a person’s right against unreasonable search.

What’s more, a recent CNN-News survey found that fully 67 percent of Americans believe that it is okay to employ such aircraft - officially called “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” or “UAVs” - in order to track down domestic criminals and not just terrorists.

And the pilotless drone aircraft industry goes so far as to say that as its technology improves the cost for these forms of spy gear will become more reasonable.

Their size will shrink as well. Some experts are even suggesting that at some point in the not-too-distant future an agency could send up “swarms” of miniaturized robotic drone aircraft that could keep tabs on what is happening several hundred feet below.

All ready some drone models are so small that they can be remotely piloted by such personal electronic devices as an iPhone.

Today, the U.S. government has some 7,000 drones serving without pay, without health care benefits and without union contracts, operating overseas against terrorists.

Also, that 7,000 figure is way, way up from the 50 drones in use only 10 years ago, demonstrating that such aircraft are here to stay.

How all this will play out is expected to become a watershed issue in the not-so-distant future, notes U.S. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Bainbridge Township.

“It appears that most drones will not be permitted until rules are written and the FAA deems them safe in U.S. airspace, and that likely won’t happen until the end of September, 2015,” LaTourette said.

For now, the FAA can and does grant special exemptions with such limitations as keeping the aircraft hovering only a few hundred feet above the earth and within eyeshot of the operator. This way the drones are less likely of being smashed like a bug against a jetliner, bringing both aircraft to the ground.

Importantly though, says the drone aircraft industry, the future holds exciting promise. Not to mention, excellent profits since the current estimated value of the drone aircraft market is pegged at nearly $6 billion.

It is believed that this figure will double within the next decade, too.

“Our (drone aircraft) missions are currently sponsored and run by government agencies, and these customers are not pursuing fish/wildlife missions,” said Kimberly A. Kasitz, Public Relations & Communications Manager of Poway, Calif.-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, one of the nation’s leading engineers of drone aircraft.

That being said, also notes Kasitz, once the FAA opens up the National Airspace Systems “this may change.”

“In the meantime, I suspect that local law enforcement will have purview over such missions, and the smaller UAS seem to be suited better for this environment,” Kasitz said. “Our multi-mission Predator B UAS, which is used by the Border Patrol, is the size of a Lear Jet and has much more capability than is needed for these types of missions. That said, some of our prospective customers have expressed interest in fisheries enforcement/poaching surveillance.”

And the drone industry’s trade organization, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, is itself promoting some of the future benefits of drone aircraft.

Among the non-law enforcement fish and wildlife possibilities: arctic research where distances are extreme and navigation difficult, flood monitoring, wildfire observation and control, erosion monitoring, and forestry work.

“While many headlines have been devoted to ‘killer drones’ and battlefield robots, these same platforms have many other uses. They can extend the reach of first responders, scientists and aid agencies while keeping people out of harm’s way,” the drone-industry association says.

The Association says also that some of this work has all ready begun. One specialized drone model even exists and whose task it is to monitor tuna activity on the high seas.

Drones are likewise being used by uber-environmentalists to follow Japanese whaling vessels.

Meanwhile, Texas has employed drone aircraft to examine its drought-stricken streams for any pools that are filled with enough water whereby they may contain the state’s endangered Guadalupe bass.

In Idaho a far-thinking fish biologist with that state’s Idaho Power Company utility has engaged a small drone aircraft to count the number of salmon and steelhead beds - called “redds” - on streams typically difficult to access on foot.

This use also came into play following a 2010 crash of a helicopter, killing the pilot and two Idaho Fish and Game fisheries biologists.

Reports said the utility spent $16,000 for its small, German-made drone aircraft. The price was worth it, says the utility’s biologist, Phil Groves, as it eliminates the fear of another helicopter tragedy.

But the response from state and federal fish and game agencies is almost universally under whelming either for or against the use of drone aircraft. With one or two exceptions.

Idaho’s Fish and Game agency does not intend anytime soon to play off Groves’ idea.

“Our fisheries bureau has explored some alternatives and found application for us currently limited by current FAA rules and cost,” said agency spokesman Niels S. Nokkentved.

Certainly the use of pilotless drone aircraft for fish and wildlife applications is cutting-edge technology. So much so that even discussing the subject remains something of an anomaly with wildlife officials.

“My Association has not intersected with this issue in any formal way. I know anecdotally that some state agencies and Canadian provinces have an interest in drone technology for wildlife population surveys, but we have not surveyed our state members or provided any informational session on the topic,” said Ron Regan, executive director for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Scott Zody, chief of the ODNR’s Division of Wildlife, says his agency hasn’t even looked into the merits or demerits of employing this form of high-tech surveillance gear.

“We have not given this idea any consideration at this point – there are many questions that would need to be answered such as legalities, policy implications for the State of Ohio that would need to involve not just the ODNR but other state law enforcement agencies and high level discussion, as well as the practical issues of cost, operation, maintenance, effectiveness and efficiency,” Zody said.

Not everyone is satisfied that the use of drones for even such things as fish and wildlife law enforcement activities is acceptable.

Count the San Francisco-based Digital Rights Analyst Electronic Frontier Foundation as one such personal-protection rights group.

“Just as drones shouldn’t be able to warrantlessly spy every time an ordinary American walks out of his or her suburban home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, law enforcement should not be able to use drones in fishing and wildlife situations for surveillance when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing,” said organization spokesman, Trevor Timm.

Though the Frontier Foundation is not opposed to using drones for such outdoors-related activities as in search and rescue operations or mapping natural disaster areas, clearly their employment as wildlife-fisheries law enforcement tools is going too far, Timm says.

“Not only does drone use put the privacy of law-abiding hunters and fishermen at stake, but drones can also record other people who were not even targets of an investigation; that type of footage should not be allowed to be used in any court, either,” Timm said.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twitter: @Fieldkorn

1 comment:

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