Program takes flight: Firm offers services using unmanned aircraft

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Phil Castle, The Business Times

     Jonathan Harris requires only a light touch on the controls to maneuver the flying machine buzzing over his head. A nudge on one lever directs the machine right and then left. A nudge on another lever sends the machine shooting straight up into the blue morning sky. Harris then commands the machine to hover in one place.

Harris brings the machine back to earth, affording a closer inspection of something that looks a bit like the improbable offspring of a spider and helicopter with its black legs and eight rotors. The 3D Robotics X8 is an unmanned aircraft system — a device also known by the acronym UAS as well as the term drone.

On this day, Harris offers a brief demonstration of the operation of an UAS. But he’s looking forward to the variety of aerial services he’ll soon provide for clients of the engineering firm for which he works: inspections, photography and surveying, to name three. “We’re excited about it,” he says.

The services themselves aren’t new. But the technology delivering those services is and does so in ways Harris says offers the same or better quality at decreased cost and increased safety.

Harris serves as a geospatial analyst and manager of the UAS program for Olsson Associates, an engineering and design firm that operates a total of 28 offices in eight states. Harris works in Grand Junction and oversees a program that was developed here.

Olsson Associates is among the first firms with operations in Colorado to earn an exemption under Federal Aviation Administration regulations for commercial UAS operations. The exemption, permitted under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, means the operations don’t require an FAA-issued certificate of airworthiness because they don’t pose a threat to national airspace users or national security.

Olsson Associates has received approval to use three types of unmanned aircraft: the 3D Robotics X8 as well as the Draganflyer X4, a four-rotor aircraft, and 3D Robotics Aero-M, a single-engine fixed-wing device the resembles an airplane.

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office also uses a Draganflyer, Harris says, and has demonstrated the benefits and reliability of the system.

The exemption for Olsson Associates follows a lengthy and intensive application process describing the UAS types and proposed uses. Harris says he basically had to develop a manual for UAS operations.

The exemption also comes with restrictions, he says, that prohibit UAS use over 200 feet in altitude and within five miles of an airport with a tower. The firm also is confined to UAS use over properties to which it has permission to operate. In addition, operators must have pilots licenses. One operator with the firm has a license. Harris says he’s in the process of obtaining his license.

With their computers and Global Positioning System navigation, a UAS is capable of following a programmed flight on its own. But operators must be capable of taking over manual control, Harris says. While there’s a big difference between flying airplanes and the small unmanned systems, he says the basics of flight still apply, as do the various regulations involved.

Harris brings to his duties a degree in environmental science from Colorado Mesa University and provides support to the environmental assessment as well as planning and permitting services offered by Olson Associates.

But his role as UAS program manager constitutes something of a natural fit, he says, because of his interests in remote-controlled models and photography.

Now it’s a matter of using the unmanned systems to provide services to clients, Harris says. “We’re booking jobs right now.”

Those services will include aerial photography in producing both still photographs and videos, he said. Still photos can be used for aerial mapping and to make measurements. A rapid series of still photographs can be used in a process to create what appear to be three-dimensional images. Videos offer a variety of applications, including visualizing a property or project or incorporating video into computer models.

Unmanned aircraft also can carry lasers used for a remote sensing technology that accurately measures distances and collects information that can be used to create three-dimensional computer models.

In addition, unmanned aircraft can be used to perform inspections, particularly when safety is factor, Harris says. Examples might include inspections of cell phone towers, electric transmission towers or wind turbines or aerial mapping of railroad yards. UAS video cameras can be operated remotely so an inspector or expert in a certain field can focus on specific areas.

In many cases, multiple services can be conducted at the same time, he adds.

Harris envisions still other UAS uses, including perhaps the precise applications of pesticides in small areas.

Compared to other alternatives for providing the same services — including the use of manned aircraft or physical inspections — unmanned systems offer savings and safety, Harris says.

Olson Associates plans to launch UAS services nationwide from the Grand Junction office, then develop more regional operations based on demand, Harris says.

Harris fully expects commercial UAS services to expand for his company as well as many others.

Amazon, for example, has received FAA approval to test unmanned aircraft systems the company envisions one day could be used to deliver packages.

According to RnRMarketResearch.com, UAS markets valued at $609 million in 2014 are forecast to reach $4.8 billion worldwide by 2021 with market growth in not only package delivery, but also oil and gas mapping, utility line inspections and agricultural applications.

The future will depend in large part on advancing technology that allows for UAS operations beyond the line of sight of operators as well as regulations governing those operations, Harris says.

But what’s still unusual now for UAS operations likely will become commonplace in five to 10 years, he says. “It’ll be a real everyday occurrence.”

For more information about Olsson Associates, call 263-7800 or visit www.olssonassociates.com.