Here’s my theory on all of the media attention on drones: If they were just called “model airplanes,” no one would care. Call them a drone, however, and your first thoughts go to ratings-drivers like terrorist strikes, NSA snooping and high-tech peeping toms.

But there’s more to drones than just evil. Real estate agents are using them to create flyover videos of homes, photographers and videographers are using them to get new perspectives, and researchers and government agencies are using them for faster, cheaper access to aerial imagery.

For the average consumer, drones are just expensive toys for snowboarders and techies. But for businesses, researchers and government agencies, especially in Hawaii, they’re the latest tool to help them work in faster, safer and cheaper ways.

Drone Hawaii

Ted Ralston carefully catches his drone after a successful flight.

Jason Rushin/Civil Beat

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or quad copters, or remote-controlled planes or whatever you want to call them, are being used in Hawaii for some very interesting and cutting-edge tasks, from letting University of Hawaii researchers cheaply calculate rainfall runoff rates to helping the Honolulu Fire Department quickly identify smoldering hot spots during brush fires.

When I started looking into drones locally, I was immediately pointed to Ted Ralston, a retired aerospace executive who now helps UH researchers and is developing a UAV training program for FEMA’s National Disaster Preparedness Training Center. He works in tandem with his wife, Margee, who’s a retired teacher, a part of Waimanalo’s Hawaii Hazard Awareness and Resilience Program, and Ted’s on-site co-pilot.

As Ted shows me his tiny, $6,500 military-grade drone, he talks about infrared wavelengths and LiDAR and a project with the World Bank in Vanuatu. It’s instantly clear that he doesn’t look at a drone and see a toy.

“I’m retired, but I’m now a consultant for Physical Sciences Inc. out of Boston,” Ted explained. “I help them test their Instant Eye drone, which is Spec Ops gear for the military that we’re transitioning to civilian use.”

When I ask for examples, Ted unleashes a torrent of novel uses for UAVs. He mentions early projects on the mainland as utility companies looked at power lines, then offers more local examples in archeology, geology, oceanography, agriculture and more.

“Beyond just the onboard imaging and sensors, it’s getting people out of the picture when the ‘three D’s’ are there. Dull, dirty, and dangerous. It’s those types of jobs that lead to accidents.”

“There’s also humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Imagine if, after a hurricane knocks out a cell tower, a drone carrying a cell repeater becomes the tower for that area. You can restore communications instantly. Or, imagine a team of two people scanning an entire block in minutes using infrared cameras to find victims. It totally changes the dynamics and response time after a disaster.”

“There’s no end to the interesting things that drones can do that are positives,” Ted stated as a matter of fact.

Drones Aren’t Creepy, Creeps are Creepy

As the talk turned to the more popular issue of privacy, John Johnson, a local software engineer, owner of One Breath Photography, and drone enthusiast, recounted a few stories from others whose drones led to, shall we say, misunderstandings.

“I’m always conscious of people and crowds, so I avoid it,” John explained. “If people are around, I do what I would call outreach. I let them know what I’m doing. Explain how it works.  Let them hear how loud it is and that, at 300 feet away, you’ll know that it’s around. But I’ve never had any issues. Most people just want to check it out, watch me fly, and ask questions.”

On the other hand, not all drone owners are willing to talk about how they use their devices, which maybe adds to the creepiness. For this column, I reached out to several people who posted Hawaii-related drone videos on YouTube. Only one sent a response, and that was from his public relations agent (and also his wife), who wanted to know what I’d be writing about before allowing her husband to talk.

Drone Hawaii

Joseph Kennedy, Ted Ralston, Craig Glenn, and Ross Winans look on as the drone takes off for another infrared survey of the shoreline.

Jason Rushin/Civil Beat

As more people buy and use drones for fun and work, groups are popping up to help ease the fears. Locally, the Hawaii Drone Club was recently formed to help “promote responsible, productive and fun use.” The club’s president, Ryan “Sal” Salcido, likened drones current status to “the horseless carriage in the old days.”

“We started the Hawaii Drone Club to help people get more comfortable with disruptive technology entering their everyday lives,” said Sal. “There’s a lot of confusion about regulations and where you’re allowed to fly. But it’s getting so popular in Hawaii that I’m having a hard time keeping up with all of the emails about the club.”

And drones are getting more popular for work and play because they’re getting so easy to use.

Smartphone Simple

What makes the higher-end drones so easy to fly is the technology that’s onboard. While Ted’s client, Physical Sciences Inc., touts how they studied the “biomimetic research of hawk moths in turbulent winds,” another more consumer-focused but no less advanced drone manufacturer, 3D Robotics, has people like Kevin Hester.

Kevin is a part-time resident of Honolulu and the full time head of platform engineering at 3D Robotics. Over coffee, he gave me some insights on the technology that’s inside of these little things, most of which he’s either developed himself or he’s working on with his team.

In a nutshell, Kevin explained, 3D Robotics’ software lets you open a map on your iPad, draw a line with your finger, and the drone will take off, follow that exact line, and come back and land at your feet. It’s amazing technology, and it’s fast becoming what Ted Ralston described as “smartphone simple” and which will open up tons of interesting uses, from a roofer surveying a job without touching a ladder to an architect checking on the progress of a skyscraper without leaving the first floor.

Oh, but there’s more!

“A farmer could survey thousands of acres with a drone and find where their irrigation system isn’t working,” Kevin went on to explain. “That could be costing them thousands of dollars, but the drone can find it and report it automatically. We’re working on technology where the farmer could throw a drone up in the air, then do something else for an hour or so, then drop a specially marked pad anywhere that the drone could see, and the drone would recognize it and land on it, regardless of where the drone started.”

It’s not the software that’s holding drones back, however. It’s the government.

“Currently drones have to be in the ‘line of sight’ of the operator at all times due to regulations. But what if a drone could land, recharge, and take off again all by itself? It could save a lot of time and money for the farmer, or countless other industries.”

And just as Ted mentioned the “three D’s,” Kevin mentioned pipeline surveying as one of the most dangerous jobs for pilots.

“It’s dull, they’re flying at very low altitudes for long periods of time, and they fall asleep or they hit something. It’s a perfect job for drones.”

Drones in Action

On a recent early Saturday morning, Ted invited me along as he helped a team of UH researchers get an aerial view of the water just offshore from Wailupe Beach Park in Aina Haina.

Craig Glenn, a professor at UH’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, enlisted Ted — well, Ted’s drone — to help him and his graduate student, Joseph Kennedy, with their research of groundwater entering the ocean. They’re using advanced thermal infrared imaging to see tiny differences in water temperatures, which they can then use to pinpoint where the water enters, how long it took to get there, and how the water — and what’s in it, like waste, chemicals or fertilizer — impacts the marine ecosystems and coral reefs.

Drone Hawaii Ted Ralston military research

Ted Ralston launches his military-grade drone into the morning sky.

Jason Rushin/Civil Beat

“Most folks don’t realize it because it is invisible to the naked eye, but the amount of groundwater that enters and carries chemicals to the the ocean is persistent and huge, very often far surpassing that of streams,” Craig explained. “This is a giant problem.”

While using aerial imagery in Hawaii isn’t new to Craig, using drones is.

“Over 10 years ago I began pioneering the use of thermal infrared cameras mounted in regular airplanes to pinpoint and map groundwater leakage to the ocean throughout the islands. Traditional aircraft are the way to go for large scale mapping, but what we need now is real time and affordable detection and mobility so we can do the work when events happen.”

Added Craig’s graduate student, Joseph, “A manned aircraft is $1,000 per hour, you have to specify the flight path weeks ahead of time so they can get FAA approval, and then you have to wait weeks to get the data. But then you see something that you want to get a closer look at and it might be months before you can do it. With a drone, you’re there, doing it in real time, can see the images and data live, can look at it on a laptop almost instantly, and can go back for another pass or a different perspective as quickly as you can swap out the batteries.”

Plus, after you drop a few thousand dollars on a drone, every flight is essentially free.

‘This Will Be in Everybody’s Backpack’

Also tagging along that morning was Ross Winans, a researcher with the federal government who is focused on geospatial analysis. He wanted to see how the drone operated in the field, and is hoping to eventually add one to his own tool kit.

“In my line of work, this will be in everybody’s backpack in five years,” said Ross. “We need to start building this skill set now so that we know how to take advantage of these new technologies.”

It’s like when workers and researchers finally had a laptop to take into the field in the ’90s, or a smartphone today. You’re able to work faster, and that saves money.

“Not only can it save money, it saves time, and lets less people cover larger areas faster,” Ross added. “We’re looking to use it to study beach erosion. Currently, we just look at a slice of the beach every few months. With a drone and some software, we can take two sweeps of a beach, put the images on our laptop, and get a complete 3D model of the entire beach in minutes. And we can come back and do it again next week to see the changes.”

Since it’s our tax dollars paying for this research, it’s great to see such interest in using technology to not only save money, but to speed the research and the application of the results, all while saving time and keeping everyone safe.

See? Drones are good!

Now if only I could convince my wife to let me get one … because it’s for research, honey. Yeah, research …

About the Author

  • Jason Rushin
    Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.