Haire offers Rotary drone demonstration

Published 5:30 pm Friday, April 14, 2017

If you sighted a flying object over Beeland Park early Thursday afternoon, it wasn’t a bird and it wasn’t a plane. It was the Camellia City’s own remote-controlled drone, and city inspector John Haire demonstrated its capabilities to Greenville’s Rotary Club members during their regular meeting at the park.

Haire, a radio-controlled aircraft enthusiast for 25 years, explained how the city’s drone has proved to be a useful tool that helps spare manpower and ensure their safety on the job.

“For example, rather than send somebody up to inspect the roofs of city buildings and possibly injure themselves, the drone actually has the capability to fly over these roofs and see if the roof is holding water or if there are other structural and maintenance issues that need to be addressed,” Haire explained.

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The drone has also been used for traffic analysis, to identify certain “choke points” around Greenville, such as the Hilltop area, to assist in making plans for improve traffic flow.

“You can stay on the ground and use a drone to get the same information that a pilot would,” Haire said.

The city’s drone has two sets of controls; one set is used to fly the drone and the other to work the device’s 12-megapixel camera, which can also shoot 4K video.

Typically, Haire, who had to undergo the special 107 certification that is now required by the FAA to fly the drone, is the sole operator. He sees what the camera sees on a small tablet and in real time. 

While it might look like a high-tech toy, Haire stresses it’s not child’s play to operate a drone.

“As long as I stay under 400 hundred feet, I don’t have to call Montgomery for flight clearance . . . and while they are great for shooting event videos, you are strictly forbidden to fly them directly over people’s heads,” Haire said. “You have all these metal rotors going at high speed and if something malfunctioned, someone could be badly injured if the drone fell. There are many built-in safety features—but you can’t forget that it is operated by computer, and computers occasionally have glitches.”

Before the drone ever takes off for a flight, a minimum of 12 satellites must be locked on the device to track its progress. The drone features several different “intelligent” modes including a “follow me” function and “return home” function.

“I could fly it from here for 1.5 miles and it would return to within no more than one or two feet of its original location,” Haire said.

While the city’s drone cost in the neighborhood of $3,300-$3,500 and weighs eight pounds, newer models are now less expensive, smaller–and even smarter.

“There is a drone out now that is small enough you could just about fit it in your back pocket. It has more special features than this one does—and it is just under $1,000,” said Haire.

Drones are not inexpensive to maintain. Batteries are $200 each and provide a charge lasting from 18 to 26 minutes, depending on if the weather is windy or calm. It takes one hour to charge a battery, with an expected battery life of 50-60 charges before it needs replacing.  A computer chip inside the battery will land the aircraft by itself if it becomes necessary.

And learning to safely and effectively fly the drone is only one part of the equation, Haire said.

“You are required to maintain a written log every time you fly it, even if it is only for a few seconds. There is an internal log that posts to the tablet, but a written log is also mandatory.”

When asked if the drone can be used to monitor criminal activity, Haire explained it could be, but only under certain circumstances.

“There has to be an actual law enforcement officer on the scene in charge. I would simply be the pilot, because I am not part of the police department,” he said. “Once the drone gets above the trees, it’s pretty quiet. But it always has lights on it, so it is visible.”

And don’t worry about the drone zooming in on you while you are relaxing around the pool.

“That’s a common misconception,” said Haire. “The drone’s camera doesn’t zoom.”