One sunny day in March, someone looking up at the sky over the Straight River just west of the Becker county line might have noticed an object flying a zigzag route.
Was it a bird? A plane? No, it was an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. Its name is Hubert.
Hubert and another quadcopter drone, known as Junior, belong to SC Recon Drone Intelligence and Technology Services of Park Rapids, a business started last July by Shelly Carroll. A longtime ecologist and global information systems (GIS) professional, Carroll quit her job with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last September to do drone work full time.
Hubert and Junior are not the lightweight plastic drones often found at Walmart or under the Christmas tree.
Compared to recreational models, these professional-grade drones:
• Are bigger and stronger, made of a carbon fiber that will withstand vibration better and last longer;
• Are modular, allowing different cameras and sensors to be plugged in;
• Have rechargeable batteries that can keep them flying for up to 40 minutes without needing to land;
• Can fly a programmed route as well as by remote control;
• Have geofencing software keeping them from flying in restricted areas, blurring and clipping software to remove private property from footage, and signaling devices to communicate with other aircraft.
Proof of concept
Carroll explained what brought her out to the Straight River as she unpacked Hubert and his payload - a high-definition camera on a robot-controlled gimbal that plugs into the drone's underbelly - from protective cases that fit in the back of her car.
"The goal of this is a proof of concept," she said. "What I am trying to show is how much less expensively I can fly 3D data of a stream and floodplain than something called LiDAR (light detection and ranging)."
LiDAR sensors carried on manned aircraft, all-terrain vehicles, and on foot collect three-dimensional survey data, for example, before a construction project. It costs thousands of dollars per mile, Carroll said.
"Drones can collect 3D in a different way, much more quickly, and for a fraction of the cost," she said - specifically, between 1/10 and 1/20 of using LiDAR. It also reduces the risk involved when manned aircraft fly at treetop height.
During a typical flight, Hubert may collect 550 to 600 high-resolution photos, each sized at 7 megabytes. The images overlap by approximately 70 percent to allow for accurate 3D modeling. The resulting mosaic is accurate to about one inch per pixel - compared to Google Earth's typical resolution of three or four feet per pixel - and includes four or five gigabytes of data.
Carroll's interest in what drone technology can do for conservation is what sets CS Recon apart from other drone-related businesses. Clients she hoped to impress with her proof-of-concept flight include Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and local soil and water conservation districts, "a combination of resource groups," she said.
"The type of flying that I do is different from other drone providers," said Carroll. "Most drone providers are doing small projects, maybe a construction site, maybe real estate photography. There are a lot of utility drones and some ag drones."
In comparison, she said, "I fly large, remote areas and use special kinds of sensors or cameras that require more front-end planning. I'm a niche. Most of the people using drones for natural resources are natural resource professionals who are desperate for a better way of getting data. So with this, I'm ramping that to a new scale."
Carroll prepares a detailed flight plan - a 20-page, comb-bound book - to ensure everyone involved knows what's going on, especially for complex missions like searching for fire hotspots or missing persons at night, or covering a large area with multiple takeoff and landing spots.
She has to abide by restrictions of where she can and cannot fly. Airspace over state and national parks and wilderness areas, defense facilities, and nuclear power plants or within two miles of an airport are off-limits.
"It's a scary mix out there," said Carroll. "I think 70 percent of the drones on the market are consumer-based, and maybe 30-percent are work related." Also, only the work-related drones have the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) signaling to detect, and be detected by, other aircraft.
Purpose in perspective
Carroll didn't set out to innovate for the sake of innovation.
"I knew this," she said. "This is my background, being a GIS professional and ecologist my whole life. I knew that this tool was coming along, so I've been watching it carefully the last five, six years. When I saw that drones were reliable, high-quality, and able to lower the amount of risk we regularly have when we go out to do resource work, that's when I decided to make it a business."
Carroll's clients, so far during her first year in business, have included local governments, conservation groups, recreational landowners (hunting property, etc.), people considering large real estate deals, and large-scale row-crop farmers. The county had her shooting pictures of ditches last October, for example.
Resource-minded drone missions include analyzing spectral data (the way light reflects off different kinds of plants) to study the health of vegetation, energy audits to spot weaknesses in a building's insulation, assessment of storm damage, counting timber before a sale, analyzing stream flow and shoreland erosion, and planning for forestry, agriculture or wetland restoration.
With the ability to show which plants are stressed by beetles, drought, or other issues, Carroll said the technology is becoming a go-to tool for phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena.
"We know that nature around us is changing faster than we can collect data on it," she said. "This is the fastest way we have to collect data, rather than flying around in very expensive airplanes or only affording a one-year study because we have to paddle a canoe into a water corridor. We're finding that drones can do what manned aircraft can do for about a quarter of the cost, and they can do it better for the data we need."
Helping Carroll run the business is her sister, Stacey DeSouza of St. Anthony, who draws on her background in finance, marketing and clinic management to handle contract administration and negotiations.
Carroll is the CEO of SC Recon, and DeSouza is the CFO.
The company's website, www.sc-recon.com, built by the sisters themselves, is a scenic stop on the information superhighway. The site illustrates many innovative ways drone intelligence can serve the "community business ecosystem" - and the ecosystem, period.