The beep from their leg-mounted transmitters will assure us that a crane we are searching for is close by, but sometimes we can’t get actual visual confirmation. It’s not always possible to get permission to enter private property or sometimes the birds are just too deep into the marsh to reach. It’s not always important to see them but it’s nice to know if recently released Whooping crane chicks are making good habitat choices, or found a mentor. Plus a number of the older birds have non-functioning transmitters. If their mate’s VHF unit still works, we can assume they are together, however assumptions are not good enough for the database. To get us into the inaccessible locations, we have occasionally used a drone to help make those confirmations.
Our DJI Phantom drone is registered with the FAA and we have commercial operator’s permits, but there are still a lot of limitations.
Federal and state agencies restrict the use of drones on public lands and most homeowners get upset if you fly over their property. In truth, everything above the ground is called National Airspace and flying in it – anywhere, is under the authority of the FAA. Property owners and government agencies can stop drone operators from landing on or taking off from their land but flying over it is legal, unless it’s FAA controlled airspace like airports and Military Operations Areas, or you are posing a danger to people on the ground. Still, many landowner wouldn’t question a Cessna flying overhead but those drones must be up to no good and many get so irate, they threaten to shoot them down. That is a federal offence and doesn’t make any sense but there is no point in arguing the finer points of the law with an irritated farmer with a shotgun.
Apart from those problems, the drone we use is a marvel of electronics and aerodynamics. From two miles away, it can link to your cell phone or a tablet that mounts above the handheld controller. The GPS unit knows if you are in appropriate airspace and it’s safe to fly and it records its takeoff point so it can return automatically if you press the “home” button. It has proximity sensors to avoid obstacles on the way back and you can pan and tilt the high-definition camera to view the world from its perspective — on your phone — in real time. It can fly for twenty minutes on a single battery charge and automatically stops climbing at the four hundred foot altitude restriction placed on drones by the FAA.
Most impressive though is the stability. Press the auto-takeoff button and it climbs to one meter and stays there, even in a stiff breeze. If you drag it off a few feet and let it go, it returns to that spot and waits for your next command. The controls are simple; one for up and down, another for forward and back and a third to rotate for turns. Let go of those levers — and it stops and waits. The operator is supposed to keep it in sight at all times but if you did lose it, just let go of the controls. It would stop where it is, and wait patiently. If, for some reason it were still lost, it would hover until the battery level dropped. Then it would fly back and land beside you, a few inches from where it started.
If you will excuse the pun, drone technology it taking off and it’s only a matter of time and better batteries before people are flying around in computer directed, multi-copters. One of many in the development stage is the Kitty Hawk Flyer. It is a single person, eight-motor, recreational craft that so far has been limited by the FAA to 15 feet up, and only over uncongested water.
So far, it’s like those water jet boots except it is not tethered to a hose and a high-pressure pump. Soon the redundant computer systems, radar altimeters, laser guidance and GPS positon lock with simple, intuitive, controls will make them reliable and the manufacturers will be asking the FAA for greater flexibility in their operating range. They will be like ATV’s without the need for trails; the ultimate in go-anywhere vehicles with built in safety features and no loud engine noise. The whole ATV, dune buggy, off-road motorcycle industry is growing. There are hundreds of machines available in all price ranges and the bigger it gets, the more pressure they put on wildlife areas and public lands. Most of them require trails so regulating agencies can limit assess. Snow machines or sleds are the main exception. With good snow cover, they can go anywhere but the advantage to nature is, that open access is limited to a season when a lot of wildlife is dormant – or gone.
Don’t get me wrong. I love technology and toys and going fast but I hope someone is thinking of the long term impact on breeding animals trying to raise young in a world when people have access to everywhere, at any time. Wetland habitat, favored by creatures like Whooping cranes, was once inaccessible except to determined explorers who trudged along in hip waders at turtle speed. Airboats opened up many of those areas especially in the south but mostly they stick to waterways. They are loud and give wildlife some warning of their approach but imagine a nearly silent craft that can criss-cross the marsh without knocking down the cattails and removing all isolation for nesting birds.
Personally, I can’t wait to try one. But the long-term impacts, that no one seems to talk about, scare me.