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Riders in the Sky Oregon/Washington BLM



Riders in the Sky

We fly them overseas. Amazon may use them to deliver packages directly to our homes. Now see where - and why - the BLM is flying drones in Oregon's friendly skies.

story by Toshio Suzuki
illustration by Matt Christenson

Downrange in Afghanistan, the military calls them unmanned aerial vehicles. Flying above Oregon Douglas firs, the Bureau of Land Management calls them unmanned aircraft systems.

Regardless of naming protocol, the small aerial drones obtained in 2008 by the Department of the Interior are being repurposed across the country for natural resource monitoring; and the military hand-me-downs may be just the beginning.

How to launch a drone? Think like an NFL QB

After a five-minute preflight check, the RQ-11 Raven drone is ready for its first launch in BLM Oregon history. With a 54-inch wingspan and a total weight of four pounds, the Raven doesn't look like a football, but to throw one is to channel Peyton Manning: cock back at shoulder height, take a step and let it rip.

Whether above an abandoned mine in Colorado, or searching Washington rangeland for elk, the process looks the same. And the mixed flight crew from the BLM and U.S. Geological Survey is likely the same, too.

Once airborne, the Raven and its ground system take it from there. One pilot plots navigation points on computer software that looks like a GPS version of the old Atari game Missile Command. Nearby, under the tented command center, another pilot monitors the drone-eye view from a hand-held screen with blinders.

The altitude on this hot, late July day was restricted to 400 feet above the ground -- plenty high enough to peer down on the 70-foot-tall fir trees at the Horning Seed Orchard in Colton, about an hour's drive southeast from Portland. The stated goal was to see if the digital imagery from the drones could recognize and count cones on the trees, a process normally done from the ground by three full-time staffers at the orchard.

"I'm gonna do a go-to downrange here, Mark," said USGS pilot Lance Brady, as he sent the RQ-16 T-Hawk drone moving at 30 mph. "OK, just don't hit the trees," ribbed fellow USGS pilot, Mark Bauer.

A Glider and a Flying Chainsaw

While the Raven is sleek, light and silent, reminiscent of the balsa wood gliders from childhood, the T-Hawk is an equally unattractive and offensively loud piece of engineering. "It sounds like a flying chainsaw," Bauer succinctly put it.

Roughly the size and shape of a small backyard charcoal grill, the T-Hawk warms up and springs into the air on its own.

Both drone systems came from the U.S. military but only the Ravens were actually flown in combat. As the military progressed to more modern versions of the Raven, older models became surplus and about 30 drones with accompanying systems were acquired by the DOI. The 44 T-Hawks, on the other hand, are basically brand new, Brady said, likely dropped by the military due to their noisiness and reliance on airplane fuel.

The Raven systems (three drones plus equipment), when new, cost about $250,000; and the T-Hawk systems (two drones plus equipment) cost closer to $700,000, according to the pilots.

Despite the eyebrow-raising Department of Defense price tags, after five years of training on the military products, the USGS and BLM pilots actually have a much more fiscally conservative drone dream.

The Drone Dream

USGS pilot Brady estimated that a budget less than the cost of one Raven system could bring numerous more affordable drones-in the $1,000 to $5,000 range-to the field office level.

"We know that the military systems that we fly aren't really suited for the natural resource monitoring that we want to be doing," he said. "For that we need better systems."

To throw one is to channel Peyton Manning. Cock back at shoulder height, take a step and let it rip.
photo by Matt Nobles

Jeff Safran, the BLM pilot and project lead at the seed orchard, reiterated the team's long-term drone aspirations, adding that it could help share the very sought-after technology.

"Right now we have more projects than we can possibly take on," said Safran. "Word spreads quickly of what we are doing and there's a lot of interest."

Mike Crawford, seed orchard program manager for BLM Oregon, said local staff looked into buying a $500 drone to explore cone counting, but they weren't sure if they were even allowed to purchase one.

Buying a drone might be the only easy part. Flying them legally is a completely different task. For example, the aerial research above those Oregon trees at the foothills of Mount Hood took a year and a half, from filing to flying.

Military clearance is first required because the drones still use military frequencies. The next approval stamp comes from the Federal Aviation Administration. Then there are the nearby landowner notifications. And finally, each mission has to be approved at the local level.

In addition to all of this, other land management agencies are taking note of the growing drone phenomenon. The National Park Service has outlawed drones. And local municipalities are creating laws, too, and one Colorado town considered issuing hunting licenses for drones.

And of course, there are the privacy concerns.

Professor David Wallin of Western Washington University learned of the sensitivities involved when the multi-agency drone team came for elk population surveys last spring.

As he explained via telephone, "Unmanned aircraft have a public relations issue right now.

"There's a lot of concerns about privacy issues. So, part of the point of doing these surveys is to try and demystify that and get the word out and illustrate that this technology has a lot of really interesting, positive uses."

Even though his mission wasn't a smashing success in terms of data accumulation, Wallin is all-in on drone technology for research and has since obtained his commercial flying license.

"It's gonna pay off," he said of the enormous time commitment he has invested in drones.

According to the joint DOI drone team of Bauer-Brady-Safran, all is not doomed. As they continue to demonstrate the data gathering possible for natural resources, a recent FAA-DOI partnership has helped streamline the red tape involved in flying the Ravens or T-Hawks.

"It's been a big leap forward," said Bauer of the new deal. "If we're operating on public lands we're good to go." Safran said he doesn't expect to have a drone in the back of every BLM pickup truck, but posed the real question he asks himself, "How do you integrate this into field management?"

No matter what they are named, Brady said a drone breakthrough could be right around the corner for the BLM.

"I think we're actually closer than you think," he said.