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Eyes in the Skies
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Drones have come to the skies of Newton and Rockdale County and it’s more than just hobbyists who are abuzz about the possibilities of these zippy devices.

Chris Carter, owner of the DC Hobby remote control vehicle shop and miniature track in Covington, knows that unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, are incredibly fun to operate. He also knows the public has concerns about safety and privacy; and like driving a car or plane, UAV operators have a responsibility to operate their UAVs safely and ethically, he says.

But what truly excites him about UAVs are the largely untapped commercial applications that UAVs offer.

Everything from inspecting power lines to making movies to catching criminal suspects can be done much more easily, efficiently and safely with the help of UAVs, says Carter.

For instance, a customer he knows uses them to help inspect rooftops, saving the time and hassle of setting up long ladders. Real estate appraisers and tax assessors have used data from overhead imagery to help assess property values. Utility companies are starting to look at using them to inspect power lines.

“Instead of paying a helicopter to inspect, I could send this up to take video of the whole line and review it from the comfort of my air conditioning,” said Carter.

He’s found they can be useful for even mundane tasks – such as cleaning the leaves out of his roof gutters. Or to take what he calls “dronies” – selfies with a drone camera.

Carter, a former Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office deputy who is still is part of the RCSO reserves – is equally excited about the public safety possibilities.

“If you get a perimeter set up for someone who ran from a house or a car, by the time you get a dog out there, you could (have) launched one of these and have two people as a spotter and fly over with a camera,” Carter explained. A Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera can detect heat signatures and has been used to detect people hiding underneath a structure or in the woods.

The fire department could use a UAV with a FLIR to help detect hot spots in an active fire or to take before and after pictures for fire investigators to help figure out what happened and how the fire spread.

Chris Grenier, who is also a former Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office deputy like Carter, works for R&R Communications, a company that builds and maintains cell phone towers.

Normally, if a tower needs to be inspected, Grenier would have to strap on 40 pounds of gear, climb up a cell phone tower 300 to 400 feet, and would need to have another employee present who is trained in elevated rescues, just to take a couple of photos of the tower. And he might have to do this two or three times in a day. Not to mention if there happened to be a bird’s nest in the tower, an observer would have to be hired to observe the nest from the ground for four hours to guess if the nest was active.

Now, says Grenier, he simply sends up a UAV and can snap pictures and video in a matter of minutes.

When he went to inspect a tower on Salem Road, “I did this in 20 minutes,” he said. “Didn’t break a sweat. We were able to diagnose the issue without me having to climb the tower.”

“I’m not getting any younger,” he added. “It was a pretty easy decision to make if I can find something to take pictures,” and these would be better pictures than he could take climbing on the tower.

The potential in this technology moved Grenier and Carter to start their own companies using UAVs.

Grenier’s company, Veteran Aerial Solutions, will focus on industrial applications. Grenier, an Army veteran, came back from Iraq in 2006 after a roadside bomb injury.

Carter is partnering with Sean Kimbell, who has a private video production company and is also the audio visual productions coordinator for Rockdale County Channel 23, to form a video and photography production company using UAVs.

Carter is no stranger to jumping into new ventures. Last year, Carter, a husband and father of three young children, decided to quit his information technology job to open up his remote control vehicle retail shop on a leap of faith.


Safety and Privacy

Grenier and other UAV operators know the public has many safety and privacy concerns.

“That’s the first thing I hear when I show the equipment,” Grenier said. “’How do I know someone’s not going to fly over my house and look in my windows?’”

Grenier said he strictly adheres to using the UAV for its agreed upon purpose.

“I’m not going to go anywhere I’m not invited,” he said. “I’m very specific about – I’m flying up taking pictures of this tower and coming down.”

“That should be common sense for anyone using this technology.”

Carter added that with the noise a UAV generates, it would be difficult for one not to be noticed if it were hovering in a yard or outside window.

As for safety, there is a checklist of rules and best practices UAV operators should follow similar to the way an airplane pilot goes down a checklist - such as not flying above a certain height, not flying beyond the sight of the operator, not flying in restricted airspace or following roads, making sure there’s enough battery power, the equipment is operating correctly, the weather conditions are right for flying, and more.

While the FAA has issued policies on UAV use, many of these are not set in stone and the agency as well as state and local officials are still figuring out what to do about this technology. (see accompanying article on FAA proposed regulations).

Last month, Carter, Grenier, and Kimbell took a voluntary, intensive three-day course to become “FlySafe” certified, meaning they’ve been trained in the best industry standards and practices.

“It’s just like riding a motorcycle or driving a car,” said Grenier. “If people are reckless, they can put people in danger. A car is a lot more commonplace. But you get a lot of looks when you deploy one of these systems.”

Carter continued, “There’s always people who are going to be reckless and irresponsible – we call them knuckleheads. (UAV operators need to) make sure we’re ambassadors for this new technology and use it responsibly and educate someone. If we see someone has one as a hobby and they’re flying it in a manner that’s irresponsible, we go up and say you’re giving us a bad name. We as a community of operators police ourselves and learn from each other and teach each other, to help people out and educate” the public on what these devices are and what they can do, he said.