Eyes in the sky: Cumberland firm wins OK to survey with aerial drones

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CUMBERLAND — The friendly skies are getting a little friendlier for unmanned flying vehicles. And that’s opening up new possibilities for one Maine engineering firm.

Sevee & Maher Engineers in early April won approval to use a quadcopter in its site surveying work, which company President Guy Cote said makes that work safer and quicker.

The company received one of the first batch of exemptions by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, allowing for the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, called UAVs or drones.

Those terms are loaded with connotations stemming from the military use of unmanned warplanes and privacy concerns. But Sevee & Maher’s Land Cruiser drone – tail number N109SM – isn’t interested in peering in your windows. It’s focused on estimating the volume of wood chip piles and sizing up landfills.

“(The FAA) didn’t have a lot of requests from engineering firms, and that is what they’re trying to push,” Cote said.

That their work is most often on clients’ private land and avoids privacy concerns raised nationally and in the Maine Statehouse helped speed up the company’s application, according to Cote.

Regulations take shape

Jeff Weston, a South Carolina-based builder of unmanned aircraft primarily for farm use, said he’s had steady work dealing with customers operating unmanned aircraft on their own land. But the FAA’s rapidly changing policies and recent attention on commercial drones – like Amazon.com’s proposal for drone package delivery – stand to open the market for new types of customers, including engineers.

“This isn’t just a fad,” Weston said. “I’ve seen great progress in just two years with the equipment that I can get and the uses (for drones).”

In Maine, the bulk of pending requests to the FAA come from companies looking to shoot and sell aerial photography or video. A Gorham search-and-rescue organization has received an exemption and drone manufacturer Viking Unmanned Aerial Solutions, also based in Gorham, has designed a tethering system for a drone that meets FAA standards for commercial flights.

While that handful of Maine companies is taking drones to the sky, it’s still a new area of regulation with rapidly changing requirements. In February, the FAA released proposed rules for seeking approval for commercial drone use and removed requirements that operators of unmanned commercial aircraft have pilot’s licenses.

Charles Burnham, the engineer who led the exemption process for Sevee, said the change derives from a position that there’s more in common between piloting a drone and video games than there is with piloting a plane.

“It’s completely different instincts,” Burnham said.

Most often, Sevee’s drone doesn’t come under direct pilot control, flying a pre-programmed route, snapping photos and landing automatically. If the battery gets low or the unit loses contact with the controller, it uses GPS coordinates to land where it started.

Though the flights are pretty predictable, there were some unexpected challenges along the way, such as finding aerial drone insurance. Cote said it took about two weeks for the company’s insurance broker to find an insurer willing to insure the drone, a requirement for FAA certification.

“There are only a couple of companies that are insuring the drones on a commercial basis,” he said.

And filling out that paperwork, Cote said it was clear commercial drone operation is still working in the margins.

“The forms that I had to fill out, you had to choose an aircraft and they had everything from single-engine Cessnas to Boeing 747s on there,” he said. “I had to put ‘other.’”

New tech, new applications

Burnham said use of the drone improves the quality and speed with which the company’s engineers can gather topographic information that forms the basis of their work.

That comes after piecing together a full system for taking and processing photos from a point-and-shoot camera loaded with custom software and mounted on a gimbal to keep the image steady. Cote estimated the total investment in the drone has been about $40,000, split between the cost for the vehicle and staff training.

Tyler Dunlea, the company’s IT technician who manages the FAA-required ground station for the drone during flights, and Burnham make up the two-person crew on hand for flights.

On top of getting the drone airworthy, Dunlea said the project required some software tweaks to reduce the time it takes to stitch together and put photos into a three-dimensional rendering after a flight.

“If we did a project with 200 photos when we started, it would take 24 hours. Now, it’s about 30 minutes or 40 minutes,” Dunlea said.

Before, Cote said, the company would have to wait months for results from having an airplane capture images of a site.

The company’s primary clients are paper mills and other industrial sites. Cote said the addition of the drone for surveying opens new possible markets for the 43-person engineering firm that hired four more engineers in the past month.

One such application would be line-of-sight analyses for projects like cell towers or wind turbines, flying to the estimated height of the structure and taking a 360-degree view.

“You can find out who would see that object before you even build it,” Cote said.

But there’s one aspect of the drone that’s more difficult to quantify: the cool factor.

“I was the keynote speaker at engineers’ banquet about a month ago and was asked if we could do a flight demonstration in the banquet hall at the Doubletree (hotel in South Portland),” Cote said. “I had to say ‘no’ to that request.”

Sidebar Elements

Pilot Charlie Burnham, left, and ground station engineer Tyler Dunlea of Sevee & Maher Engineers in Cumberland ready their unmanned aerial drone for a test flight April 22 near their office.

Sevee & Maher Engineers in Cumberland uses a quadcopter to conduct aerial photographic surveys.