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Drones: another eye in the sky

Drones. The name sounds mysterious, other worldly, and can fascinate or frighten depending on whether you think these unmanned craft open up opportunities or looms overhead as a threaten to privacy.

They’ve been around for some time now, long enough to attract both the hobbyist or the American intelligence agencies using them as spies in the sky or a delivery systems for a weapon to take out terrorists.

There are a slew of business applications.

Realtors using them to give clients a bird’s eye view of property and home interiors.

Businesses operating in Northern Virginia have discovered that drones can improve service.

Linton Hall Realtors, a Northern Virginia real estate group, puts drones to work in the sale of property.

“We can now afford aerial photos for most of our clients, regardless of house price,” explained Ashley Leigh, broker-owner of Linton Hall. “Properties with premium lots are a favorite for the use of drones. We can showcase the property and surrounding area with drone photos as well a drone video tours.”

Scott Corbett, Linton Hall's executive vice president and sales manager, added that aerial photography supplied by a drone “enhances the view of a large acre property to show a client. It’s better than standard photography. It can give 360 degree aerial views.

He said he’s been using drones for a year.

“The first time we did it and posted the video we got two contracts within seven days,” Corbett said.

But it's not something every listing would benefit from.”

“Every listing is different and using a drone to showcase a townhouse wouldn’t have the same “wow” factor, he said.

Utility companies use them to get close up views of transmission lines and towers and some state transportation departments use them to inspect bridges.

News organizations are using them too.

Since they are aircraft the Federal Aviation Administration regulates the flight of drones -- or unmanned aircraft system. Operators of drones must register their vehicle and obtain what’s known as a Section 333 exemption or a public certificate of authorization if it is to be used for a purpose other than as a model aircraft.

The drone can’t be flown more than 400 ft. in the air and must get no closer than five miles to an airstrip of any kind, whether it be Dulles International Airport, a rural airstrip, or a hospital helipad without notifying the facility first. The user's name, the craft's registration number, and the location, date and time when it will be operating must be supplied.

Last December, the FAA announced a streamlined and user-friendly web-based registration process for drones up to 55 pounds, including payloads such as on-board cameras. These include any used as a model aircraft.

Drones are to remain well clear of an not interfere with manned aircraft operations. The operator must keep them within sight when flying. They aren't to be flown near people or stadiums.

Despite the rules, the FAA’s Office of Chief Counsel says that reports by pilots of conventional aircraft of interactions with suspected unmanned aircraft increased from 238 sightings in 2017 to 780 just through August of 2015.

The FAA will be coming out with new regulations in June that reportedly will dispense with the pilot’s license requirement and will allow operators to fly if they pass an exam.

The commonwealth of Virginia sees opportunity as drones become more popular.

The state's General Assembly last month passed an amendment barring local governments from regulating the use of privately owned, unmanned aircraft system.

In 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed established an unmanned systems commission. His executive order noted that Virginia ranks eighth in the number of unmanned system companies in the nation.

The state administration sees benefits, from inspecting and maintaining crops, cars that drive

The order directs the new commission to identify challenges and needs of the industry, including workforce, research and engineering expertise, manufacturing and economic development opportunities.

Lord Fairfax Community College offers a course on drone operation at its Vint Hill campus on the eastern outskirts of Fauquier County.

“It got started because part of what I do is look for upcoming employment trends and I thought this looked good for the local workforce and good for Lord Fairfax,” explained Dr. Edith Kennedy, associate dean of instruction at the Vint Hill campus.

A geography class used a drone to scan a field across from the campus last summer and analyze the images.

“It’s more difficult to control than you may think,” Kennedy said, especially flying very small ones that can be buffeted by the weather.

The operator is on the ground controlling the craft by moving a joy stick. The school owns a drone but students are encouraged to buy their own, which can be purchased at stores like Wal-Mart or through Amazon.com. Simple machines can be bought for as little as $20, she said.

“The FAA mandates the operator must be registered. The FAA doesn’t want unintended incidents, whether it be a drone that’s too close to a rescue, too close to an airplane or a forest fire. They can be quite dangerous to airplanes. We are working closely with the instructor who works closely with the FAA.”

Lord Fairfax offered its first drone class last fall. More advanced classes are planned.

Students can earn credits toward a degree but some just take the class for fun.

As the college trains the next generation of drone operators, utilities such as Dominion Virginia Power employs private drone companies to inspect the condition of transmission towers and overhead lines.

Drones haven't replaced linemen or helicopters. Drones handle just 1 or 2 percent of the inspection work thus far, said Steve Eisenrauch, electric transmission forestry and line services.

He said the utility started talking about using drones to inspect its lines and towers in 2013 then started testing with tethered flights at its Chester, Va., facility. Implementation started in August 2015 and they’ve been used regularly since, he said. The utility hires drone operators.

Drones haven’t replaced linemen or helicopter inspections. “Drones are still a small portion of our inspections,” Eisenrauch said. “I don’t know that they will totally replace either option -- linemen or helicopter_ but he does expect their use to increase.

Chuck Penn, a Dominion media relations manager, said drones could be used to assess storm damage.

“What we do typically is hire a helicopter to do a damage assessment,” a task that could be done by a drone, he said.

Penn describes himself as a “photo enthusiast. I have a video production background.” He's also drone owner and is eager to explore the capabilities and applications of the technology.

Eisenrauch noted the FAA still requires the operator to keep the drone within sight. When the day comes that a drone could exceed that, their use is bound to increase.
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