Sky-high potential for drones in Frederick County - The Frederick News-Post : Agriculture
Sky-high potential for drones in Frederick County
By Sylvia Carignan News-Post Staff | Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2014 2:00 am
In the not-so-distant future, one invention will create high-paying jobs, increase farmers' crop yields, keep high school students on track for college and inspire new businesses.
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, seem poised to become the next big thing in the tech world. Frederick County students are already building them in their classrooms, though the regulations that accompany the flying devices have yet to catch up with their growing use.
At the engineering lab in the Career and Technology Center in Frederick, a group of five high school students have 3D-printed a model of a fixed-wing drone with a wingspan of about 3 feet — a third of the size of the drone they designed.
The drone was designed for a contest a few of the students entered last year, the Real World Design Challenge. Their goal was to create a drone for the search portion of a search-and-rescue mission covering different types of forest and terrain. This year, they’ve adapted their drone and designed three more for agricultural use.
They use high-resolution and infrared cameras on their drones to detect crop damage from a pest called the European corn borer. One of their two hovering drones can lift up the leaves of a corn plant, exposing insect eggs and larvae underneath. The other can drop traps for the larvae.
Nathan Fox, a 10th-grade student working on the project, said he’d like to study aerospace engineering in the future. Drones appeal to him because of their potential, he said.
“Our design could actually become something,” he said.
The teacher who leads the engineering class at the Career and Technology Center, Phil Arnold, said their designs are promising.
“If we can increase crop yield and reduce pesticide application, we reduce cost to farmers,” he said. “There isn’t a downside.”
In agriculture, drones could collect precise data and photos of crop fields, Maryland Farm Bureau Government Relations Director Colby Ferguson said, but the costs of upgrading farm equipment may slow a farmer’s switch to drone-based data collection.
“Most of the farmers don’t have all the other technology that would be needed,” he said.
Many rely on Google Earth’s satellite maps of their land to plan their crops and identify problem areas.
Ferguson said he hasn’t heard of any Frederick County farmers who are using drones, but he expects their use to catch on.
“It’s definitely the future of agriculture as we’re trying to grow more on less land,” he said.
Back in the classroom, Arnold said the next five years of the Real World Design Challenge will be focused on drones for precision agriculture.
“You cannot overstate how large it is,” he said.
Starting a local conversation
Max Obuszewsi is a member of the Maryland chapter of national anti-drone group No Drones Network. Locally, he said, their organization is concerned that drones might bring unwelcome surveillance from the government.
The Maryland chapter, made up of about 50 members from around the state, protest the use of drones overseas and their potential misuse at home at the National Security Agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade.
“There’s a lot of rules that have to be established,” he said.
Obuszewski said he worries that the government may use drones to violate the Fourth Amendment and the prohibition of unreasonable searches without a warrant.
Above all, he said, members of the public need to start a conversation about their rights and how drones can be used safely.
“Presumably, people will have questions,” he said.
According to Blaine Young, president of Frederick County’s commissioners, that hasn’t happened yet.
“We’ve had no interaction or constituency feedback about drones,” he said. “It hasn’t even been a topic of interest.”
The commissioners have yet to hold a work session or public hearing about the issue because there has been no public interest, Young said.
Carroll County's commissioners talked last summer about restricting drone use because of concerns about surveillance. The commissioners have not yet proposed formal action regarding drones.
Where the wild things are
Humans may not be the only residents of Frederick County to see drones in the future. Paul Peditto, director of the wildlife service for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said they are considering drones as a way to keep an eye on animal habitats and resources the state maintains.
A peregrine falcon nest on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is among those habitats.
“Not everyone likes to climb on that bridge and peek underneath it,” he said.
The department also monitors habitats like eagle nests and bear dens. Its eagle surveys are generally performed once a year by helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. Bear dens are located in the winter, then revisited two or three times through the rest of the den season.
Peditto said the drones may be easier to use than live webcams when it comes to monitoring wildlife.
“Webcams are expensive to maintain, and they generally require you to get to the site to set them up,” he said. “If you’re only looking at a location one or two times a year, it doesn’t necessitate the cost and the logistics.”
The new technology creates opportunities for observing difficult-to-reach places like cliff faces or high nests, Peditto said. His department is investigating options for using drones.
“Five or six years ago, we weren’t sure we saw the applications of the iPhone or smartphones in general," he said. "Now we can’t live without them.”
Restrictions to unmanned flight
"It's not a trivial cost, but if you can afford an iPad, you can afford a drone," said Timothy Reuter, founder of the Drone User Group Network and president of its Washington chapter.
Reuter started his group with seven members in August 2012. The D.C. chapter has now reached 1,000 members.
"There's just a lot of excitement around this technology, being something that regular people can access," he said.
That fact may be exactly the problem for the Federal Aviation Administration, which is developing rules and standards for drone use. Drones used for commercial or business purposes require a certified aircraft and certified pilot, according to the agency.
Reuter’s group often meets at Davis Airport in Laytonsville, where the airport’s managers notify nearby towers of their drones’ presence.
“It’s easier for people to fly recreationally on the weekends than it is for them to fly professionally all day, every day,” he said.
Reuter said his group is made up of artists interested in aerial photography, hobbyists, hackers and entrepreneurs. Several have business plans in mind for their drones.
“And for some people, it’s just fun,” he said.
Follow Sylvia Carignan on Twitter: @SylviaCarignan.
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/
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