Richland County’s latest tool to save taxpayer dollars and aid efforts to attract industry is a small, robotic flying device that could be mistaken for a UFO.
Actually, it’s a UAS – or unmanned aerial system. Yes, it’s pretty cool. But it’s also rather practical.
“The use of the County’s unmanned aerial system will greatly enhance our ability to show industrial prospects available sites in Richland County,” said Nelson Lindsey, Richland County’s economic development director. “With this technology, we can easily provide a bird’s eye view of a site from multiple angles that highlight the property’s features.”
Richland County has two small, commercial-grade UAS units that snap photographs from 400 feet off the ground. They measure about three-feet across the wingspan and weigh less than five pounds. With a price tag of less than $2,500 each, the units cost far less than those million-dollar systems used by the military or major companies. The County is currently in the process of getting the necessary federal certifications to use the units for various purposes.
UAS technology is part of a broader revolution of practical applications with robotics. Such automated equipment now clears brush from highways, inspects infrastructure and collects aerial imagery in a manner that is more cost efficient and safer.
“This is just the latest advance in the history of remote sensing that is coinciding with the revolution in robotics,” said Dr. Patrick Bresnahan, the geographic information officer for the Richland County Information Technology (IT) Department and a member of the geographic information systems (GIS) staff that oversees the use of the UAS.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed rules to incorporate UAS technology into U.S. airspace. Even before the FAA began its rulemaking, the use of unmanned aerial systems in personal and business activities has, literally and figuratively, taken off.
Bresnahan emphasizes the County’s UAS devices only will be flown over County-owned properties – like landfills and undeveloped tracts of land. Lindsey points out the ease and affordability of the UAS will allow the County to respond quickly to clients based on their needs.
“We can send a file, photo, or video to a company across the globe, and they can see for themselves the site without leaving their desks,” Lindsey said. “This technology is changing how real estate is showcased.”
The most common practical uses of UAS include crop monitoring, site inspections, tower and pole inspection, search and rescue, emergency response and mapping. As applications of UAS technology expand, the County must stay on top of rules and regulations as to its use. Beyond the FAA rules, each user must have a specific set of procedures to ensure safe operations. Together, the rules and procedures are combined in the FAA Certificate of Authorization to operate these platforms.
Various County departments are considering how the UAS can be used to improve operations and save money.
“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 County’s Solid Waste & Recycling Department. The UAS would eliminate the need to hire an aerial photographer or rent a plane to fly over a landfill, saving the County thousands of dollars.
Although most residents will never see a County-owned UAS in action, Richland County has for years been at the forefront nationally for use of the technology by local and state governments.
“We have Patrick Bresnahan to thank for that,” said Janet Claggett, the Richland County Chief Information Officer. “Without his guidance, we would not be where we are in this area and he’s certainly added to the national conversation on the topic.”
Bresnahan is a member and serves as a co-chair of the National Association of Counties (NACo) GIS subcommittee. Even this item is unique in that chair and co-chair appointments are usually limited to elected County officials. On July 11, Bresnahan will moderate a panel of county officials from across the country on GIS and UAS operations at the NACo Conference in Charlotte.
“I have put together an agenda that includes our traditional GIS topics but is focused on UAS,” said Bresnahan, who also was the keynote speaker at the Pennsylvania GIS Conference last month. “County officials across the country are begging for information on the benefits, practical applications and complicated regulatory framework in which to operate UAS for local operations. The practical applications are starting in mapping and remote sensing but, will obviously expand to many aspects of local government operations.”
In his workspace, Bresnahan is surrounded by computer monitors showing colorful maps, tracts of land and 3-D models of buildings – images captured by UAS test flights. And when the County’s two flying machines are not in use, they are stored near Bresnahan’s office. To say Bresnahan is an expert in all things GIS is an understatement. He wrote the book on GIS – or rather a go-to document, having co-authored the text, “The GIS Guide for Local Government Officials,” among other topical publications.
When it comes to the UAS, Bresnahan hopes residents appreciate the benefits of the County having the units.
“This is a technology that will be used in many facets of daily life. This is huge,” he said. “We just need to make sure Richland County is ready to take advantage of the technology and manage it in a safe and productive manner. The County will, eventually, need a comprehensive strategy for such implementation and management.”