The banquet room at the Sheraton Madison Hotel was packed, with 125 people listening with rapt attention Tuesday as a panel of speakers agreed that drones are multiplying like flies, around the U.S. and here in the Madison area.
Drones can be used for so many purposes, from mapping natural disasters to monitoring construction sites, the speakers said.
“It’s phenomenal the business uses that are coming to fruition,” said Chris Johnson, CEO of Pilot Training System, Madison. “The floodgates are about to open.”
A major Wisconsin insurance company wants to use drones to assess storm damage and keep claims adjusters out of harm’s way, he said.
“If they can process claims faster and get their customers back in their homes, the customers are happy and the workers are safe,” Johnson said.
Agricultural planning and monitoring is another important use, he said. “Drones can capture high-quality data at a fraction of the cost of using conventional aircraft,” Johnson said.
Drones can help police and fire departments, and can make maintenance inspections of wind turbines safer and more efficient, said Peter Menet, founder and CEO of Menet Aero, Milwaukee.
Instead of a crew of several people handling each turbine, a small, unmanned aircraft can fly over five or six turbines a day, taking photos and gathering information, Menet said. “And nobody has to climb anything, so the insurance risk is greatly reduced,” he said.
David Geisler, vice president of operations for Rapid Imaging Software, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he can use drones at construction sites to make sure materials are not being stolen and track the progress of a project.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said, with an obvious pun.
Heads turned sharply, though, when Bradley Livingston, Dane County Regional Airport director, pointed to safety concerns brought on by the remote-controlled aircraft.
There have been several cases of drones reportedly penetrating airplanes’ air space, including a “near-miss” on the final approach of one private plane last year, he said.
“I’m very concerned about (air) traffic separation,” said Livingston, who spoke from the audience.
He said some communities are considering setting up “no drone zones” within five miles of an airport. “I think that’s preemptive; we’re not pursuing that locally,” he said.
A review of Federal Aviation Administration records by the Wisconsin State Journal showed the pilot of a single-engine Cessna C172 reported a near-miss with an unmanned craft “approximately the size of a seagull” at the Madison airport on Aug. 25, 2015. “Evasive action” was taken to avert a crash, the report said.
In the 14 months between Nov. 13, 2014 and Jan. 31, 2016, the FAA recorded more than 1,300 reports of possible drone activity near aircraft or commercial airports nationwide. In addition to the Madison incident, six others were reported in Wisconsin during that period, three of them in Waukesha, the records showed.
Johnson said a committee has been formed to hold quarterly meetings and encourage education of drone users.
The discussion came at a luncheon meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council’s Wisconsin Innovation Network. A show of hands revealed about 25 attendees use drones, either for work or pleasure.
They include Chris Jushka, a Wisconsin State Patrol lieutenant, who supervises the air support unit. Interviewed after the meeting, Jushka said he flies drones at home as a hobby; the State Patrol does not use them yet. But the technology could be beneficial, he said.
“I certainly see drones as a fantastic tool to use for saving lives, natural or manmade disaster assessment, search and rescue and crime scene reconstruction. Drones can have a tremendous positive impact and certainly can save time and money,” Jushka said.
At a large accident scene, for example, “one drone, up in the air, has the capability to take the pictures we need, assist with the measurements and (allow us) to open the highway much quicker. Although this technology is relatively new, we are watching it closely,” he said.
Capitol Police detective Christopher Litzkow talked after the meeting with Gerald Kulcinski, director emeritus of the UW-Madison’s Fusion Technology Institute, whose students have developed bomb-sniffing technology for drones.
That could be “critical” for security and could hold down expenses, Litzkow said, in an interview. Capitol Police use a bomb-sniffing dog that can identify a person carrying explosives, even in a crowd, he said. But on a hot, humid day, the dog needs to get a water break every 15 to 20 minutes, he said. And, Litzkow said, a dog trained to detect explosives can cost $50,000.
Attorney Tom Gemmell, one of the leaders of an unmanned aircraft systems team for the Husch Blackwell law firm in Chicago and a former Air Force fighter pilot, said there are still plenty of legal questions surrounding drones, including privacy issues. But he said their flexibility and cost effectiveness can help any number of clients, ranging from the entertainment industry to homeland security.
“If you can think about it, it’s going to happen,” Gemmell said.