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County takes to air with drones for gathering economic development data

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Pat Bresnahan, Ben Jones, John Barry (RichCo IT staff) for drones 9-14
Patrick Bresnahan, left, Ben Jones, and John Barry of the Richland County Information Technology staff check out their unmanned aerial system devices. (Photos/Provided)

By Chris Cox
Published Sept. 21, 2015

The commercial drone phenomenon continues to reach new heights, its rising popularity gaining traction across the globe.

But it’s not wedding photos or racing competitions that have Patrick Bresnahan intrigued in the unmanned aerial system. Rather it is the device’s new approach to data collection that has his Richland County Information Technology Department team on board.

“Honestly for us, unmanned aerial systems are just another platform,” he said. “I’ve used helicopters, I’ve used fixed-wing aircraft, I’ve used satellite data. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from. The platform is, for all honesty, irrelevant. This is just the next platform. It’s another platform to collect data with.”

The county currently has a pair of commercial-grade units that take pictures from 400 feet off the ground, each at a cost of less than $2,500. Its uses are seemingly limitless, though none more exciting than industry recruitment efforts.

Uas FOR DRONE 9-14
A drone – or unmanned aerial system – is used by Richland County to gather economic development data.
Economic Development Director Nelson Lindsay has already gotten use of the system as the county continues its work on drawing new business to the Pine View Industrial Park off Shop Road.

“It allows us to take aerial photos or videos from a bird’s eye view,” he said. “It can show off a site, especially a wooded site, where otherwise all you are seeing are trees. It allows us to send those videos to companies across the globe to give them an idea of what an industrial site looks like without them physically having to visit the site.”

Through the drones, Lindsay’s team has been able to gather short 30-second videos to showcase both the site’s wooded and cleared areas. Those have already been shipped off to prospective companies, he said.

“I think it’s a lot easier for them than having to come here and see it,” he said. “The results haven’t played out yet, but we’re at least in the beginning stages of hopefully utilizing this more.”

The drone’s most common uses range from search and rescue to crop monitoring. Mapping, site inspection and emergency response are typical applications, too.

Richland County’s Solid Waste and Public Works departments could also get some future use out of the technology, Bresnahan said.

“The potential benefit to Solid Waste is to get photos and topographic data for critical areas of our landfill to satisfy state regulators and assist with our long-range planning needs,” said Rudy Curtis, the interim director of the Solid Waste & Recycling Department. This would eliminate hiring aerial photographers or renting planes, saving Richland County thousands of dollars.

Bresnahan maintains that flying these systems is not a very complicated process – “I’m not going to blow smoke here, it’s not glamourous,” he said – which makes its Federal Aviation Administration guidelines all the more confounding.

Under FAA regulations, the operator and one or two observers depending on the equipment must all maintain at minimum a valid FAA second-class medical certificate. “Basically, the person operating this $2,500 piece of equipment has to go for a flight physical,” Bresnahan said.

The operator and observers must also pass the written ground test, which Richland County is about to embark on. Most local governments haven’t bothered to mess with the certifications, Bresnahan said, and are going rogue. As far as he knows, Richland County is one of only two local governments nationwide trying to gain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization.

“Most of them just say, ‘Ah, forget it,’” he said. “Looking at this, you can understand that people just don’t want to do it.”

But Richland County is aiming to use its latest technology the right way. And in doing so, further its economic development efforts while saving taxpayers money when possible.

“It’s another technology that we hope helps in our efforts to attract business,” Lindsay said. “I’m always curious what the new technology is. I’m sure it’s something cool, I just don’t know what it is yet.”

Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.

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