Special Report: The Buzz Over Drones

Updated: 05/21/2014 12:43 PM
Created: 05/20/2014 11:03 PM
By: Darren Danielson

Technology is changing virtually every aspect of our lives and we as a society have to decide how, or if we use it.

We've seen our iconic Duluth landmarks a thousand times. But never quite like this.

New images and perspectives are now possible because of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

They can capture images from perspectives humans cannot get to. Josh Kunze says they are a lot of fun and with today's GPS technology, and they are incredibly easy to fly.

"About three years ago I got into drones," said Kunze as he  stands near Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge. He's been perfecting his flying skills as well as his photography skills.

"You can get a lot of great shots with a very small learning curve."

Kunze holds up his quadcopter and wiggles it, but the go-pro camera that's mounted underneath holds as steady as a rock. He smiles and says, "as you can see here the camera is perfectly stabilized so if I'm up there and hitting quite a lot of wind everything's staying perfectly stable".  

The video that comes back is unbelievably steady, as if it were taken while mounted on a tripod. But the video is from 200 feet above the ground.

It's an evolution of technologies combining to create a whole new industry. All you need is a light weight camera, a remote controlled unmanned vehicle and you are ready to take off.

Like anything, it takes a little practice but it is as about easy as it looks. Hobbyists like Kunze must follow suggested FAA rules, which include flying below 400 feet, staying within eyesight, and staying away from airports.  

The video is exceptional, but countless industries are seeing this as more than providing pretty pictures.

Many are now considering the economic benefits of this new, emerging technology: Real estate agents showing off properties from spectacular angles, farmers flying over their land to see what crops need attention, drones can inspect bridges above, below and underneath. 

Mike Nelson teaches aviation at Lake Superior College and knows of many uses for drones or, UAVs as he prefers to call them.

"Wildlife research, packs of wolves, deer or moose populations, you could see them day or night.  Drones are already being used in situations considered too hazardous for humans" Nelson says.  "Here is a phrase that's used a lot: dull, dangerous, dirty missions. Let's put an unmanned aerial vehicle in where we won't put a person in harm's way." 

Human life is at risk when workers have to inspect tall towers or skyscrapers, wind turbines or oil platforms. If there is a lost child, eyes in the sky can be almost immediate. In our region they could be used to check ice conditions, track a forest fire and threatened property, or in 2012, to see how extensive our own flooding was.

"Now commercial use, that's a bit more of a grey area," says Josh Kunze.  "As of today commercial use is prohibited by the FAA so it's only open to hobbyists," he adds.  

The FAA has put a stop to most if not all commercial ventures until they can figure out how to solve a lot of concerns, one being that of public safety.  

This winter, Lakemaid Beer tried to deliver brew out to ice anglers on a frozen Minnesota lake. The FAA quickly grounded that idea. And Kunze says he understands why.  

"These things can go as much as a kilometer in the air and I can see that the FAA wouldn't want people flying at those altitudes."

The FAA has designated sites in six states to go ahead with some drone testing, to learn more about the promise and hazards of countless unmanned aircraft doing business overhead.  

And privacy concerns also abound.  

Could paparazzi types sneak up on unsuspecting celebrities?  

Could someone spy on you through an upstairs window?  

Should law enforcement be able to use drones?  If so, should a search warrant be required before they do?       

This tempting technology and eager marketplace are both growing faster than our laws. We are entering a new era in aviation. Drones are not just toys anymore and they will likely become a bigger part of our lives.  So, ready or not, we have to wrestle with what it means to live in a world of drones.

Whenever this gets resolved there are a lot of students eager to get their hands on the controls of these things. Not just for fun, but for a potential career in a growing new industry that's really taking off. 

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