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Bits Blog: Filling the Country With Drones


A drone with special cameras to identify crop health is checked before a flight over a strawberry field in Plant City, Fla., this month.Credit Jay Conner/Tampa Tribune, via Associated Press

In the last few days, perhaps one million small drones were given as Christmas gifts. Many prototype commercial drones, however, have been flying largely unnoticed for almost a year, and are preparing for a big takeoff of their own.

Last week, The Times reported on a growing drone industry in North Dakota. It is just one of several rural areas where there is concerted activity in commercial drones. Far from Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs are working on drone applications for agriculture, energy, rail and other industries largely in less populated parts of the country.

It makes sense: There is more need for drones in rural areas, and there are fewer costly things that a drone might crash into. The military operations involved with many of these endeavors are also in rural areas.

Much like in the early days of computers in Silicon Valley, the government is an important partner in turning this technology into a commercial industry. In 2014 the Federal Aviation Administration chose six test sites for unmanned aircraft systems, or U.A.S., the officially preferred name for drones. The sites involved were in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

In many cases, the U.A.S. industries draw from local strengths. North Dakota has lots of wind farms, for example, and a Grand Forks company called EdgeData is works on using quad copters for inspecting the windmills for wear. There’s also a big U.S. Air Force base in the area that only flies drones, where the state is building a U.A.S. industrial park.

In upstate New York, the military is also flying drones, and local industries have long concentrated in remote sensing technologies like radar.

A few weeks ago, the 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air National Guard had the first approved takeoff and landing of a drone at a commercial airfield, the Syracuse International Airport. The flight of the MQ-9 Reaper was the first step in building out an unmanned air traffic control system for drones, according to local officials.

“The consumer drone industry is growing like crazy, but just as fast there are Department of Defense contractors working on new civilian functions,” said Larry Brinker, the executive director of the Northeast U.A.S. Airspace Integration Research Alliance, a group that manages the local test site and lobbies for drone companies. “It’s not just about the drones, but building out sensing equipment.”

Companies involved in the group include Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Saab Sensis, a U.S. arm of the Swedish defense company.

“We envision building out in rural environments where you can build a safety case” for U.A.V. air traffic control, said Anthony Albanese, president of Gryphon Sensors LLC, which makes drone sensing gear. “Eventually it will be urban – you can envison delivery centers on top of buildings in cities.”

In Nevada, the focus is less on drones, and more on what they can do for other tech industries. “The drones are sexy, but the value is in data collection,” said Thomas Wilczek, an aerospace specialist with the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “We’ve got a lot of data centers in Nevada – I want them fed. I’m as happy with a company that has 40 engineers working on data as I am with someone making drones.”

One thing all the rural experimentation sites share seems to be contacts from the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook, all of which have big drone programs. “Everybody talks with the test sites,” Mr. Brinker said. “We’ve got a lot of very good altitude they can play with.”

Away from the government facilities, there is lots more experimentation in rural areas, from flying firefighting robots in Reno, Nev., to teams of drone pilots for work and play in Iowa, and a British company called BioCarbon Engineering that hopes to plant 1 billion trees a year in deforested areas by using drones.

To people in the tech industry’s heartland, that kind of experimentation is how drones will go from a million toys at Christmas to a major economic influence.

“Sure, North Dakota – We’re all extending the Internet into space,” said Chris Anderson, the founder and chief executive of 3D Robotics, a Berkeley, Calif., drone maker. “We understand data and we can solve problems, but we’re not in Iowa, we’re not in North Dakota. We don’t know what a lot of the problems are for these to solve.”


NYT > Technology

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