Drone operators, experts land for summit at University of Arkansas

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 288 views 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has benefited from the security features drone technology offers.

Michael Quiroga, founder and CEO of Intelligent Drone Systems, based in Miami, Fla., explained how Sensofusion of Finland provided drone security for Putin on a visit to the country.

Quiroga’s company is a security consultant and design arm for Sensofusion, and he spoke about this milestone in drone security during a drone summit hosted Thursday (Oct. 27) at the University of Arkansas. More than 50 attendees, including drone business owners, hobbyists, government officials and educators, discussed drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), in the summit at the UA Global Campus in Fayetteville.

New technology is being developed every day, said Richard Ham, associate director of operations management graduate program in the department of industrial engineering at the UA.

“Because it’s moving so fast, it’s hard to keep up with,” Ham said. “That’s why we’ve asked the experts to come and explain.”

Sensofusion, through its Airfence technology, offers countermeasures that can stop nefarious drones, Quiroga said. It can cut off drones’ engines, send them back to home position or take over their capabilities. However, in the United States, the countermeasures technology is awaiting Federal Communications Commission approval.

“Airfence can detect signals up to a 6-mile radius,” he said. “We listen for all RF frequencies out there.” And if the nefarious drone’s radio frequencies are disabled, the company’s technology can detect its GPS signal.

“The NFL is looking at us very seriously,” he added. Quiroga’s company, with annual revenue of $7 million, will soon install its technology at Denver International Airport.

“We work in conjunction with local law enforcement,” Quiroga said. “We can tell you in real time where the drone and operator is.”

Coverage is 360 degrees and up to an altitude of one mile.

“We can detect in all spectrums,” he said.

Quiroga also spoke about Nightingale Security for which his company also performs consulting and design work. Nightingale Security provides video surveillance via drones.

Quiroga said one of the biggest “Achilles heels” of drones is battery life. The company has worked around the issue by having the drones communicate autonomously. When battery life gets low on the drone providing surveillance, another drone with a fresh battery will replace it.

“We manufacture our own drones,” he said. “Made in Silicon Valley.”

The Nightingale Security drones operate in a two-mile circumference, fly up to 30 minutes and recharge in 45 minutes.

“We already have our nighttime exemption,” Quiroga said. The company is working on a waiver for a single operator to control multiple drones.

Since starting two years ago, both business segments, Nightingale Security and Sensofusion, have expanded. Quiroga expects company revenue might double or triple in the coming years.

“The use of drones is growing exponentially,” he said during lunch break at the summit. Globally, 300,000 new drones take flight each month.

The commercial aspect of the business is about two months old. On Aug. 29, the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules governing commercial drone use went into effect. Under the rules, commercial drone operators must be at least 16, have a remote pilot certificate and operate the drone within line of sight. Drones cannot fly higher than 400 feet or weigh more than 55 pounds.

Companies such as retailer Wal-Mart Stores have tested drones for inventory management at its warehouses.

Brad Fausett, CEO of ARK UAV, said U.S. regulations have required his drone company to operate in other countries, such as Canada. The North Little Rock company, with annual revenue between $500,000 and $600,000, is focused mostly on the “higher-end user,” including a $150,000 to $250,000 investor. The company has seven pilots and more than 30 drones, several of which were in front of the stage at the summit.

Fausett, who’s been in talks about someone buying the company, has worked in the business for four years and hopes to increase annual revenue to between $1.6 million and $2.4 million in 2017.

“The biggest job we’ve done so far is about 18,000 pictures,” he said.

The most profitable segments of his business include landowners wanting pictures of their land and LiDAR, or the use of lasers for surveying. It takes his company 15 minutes to collect ground survey data whereas the traditional way would take several days.

“Our data collection is almost perfect,” he said. “We’re at 1 centimeter of accuracy.”

Fausett, who has a background in agriculture, has provided data to farmers.

“Data is everything,” he said, adding he believes drones will collect better data than conventional aircraft. He can tell farmers when to expect a profitable harvest or show them the level of the ground.

Thermal detection is another important feature in drone use. The feral hog population does $40 million in crop damage every season, he said. His drones typically operate at an altitude of between 180 and 250 feet, and can fly between 40-45 minutes at a time. While he’s not concerned about rain when using drones, strong wind and large birds can damage them or cause them to crash.

Other speakers at the event were supervisory special agent Scott Birkland of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and special agent Kenny Maldonado of the FAA. Birkland explained drones are not only a toy, but also a threat. He looks to find a balance with technology growth and public safety. Intelligence shows “we don’t have indicators” of a plan to use drones to “commit a terrorist act at this time,” Birkland said.

He wants the government to develop a positive relationship with those who will be using the drones.

“We want to be ahead of the problem,” Birkland said.

Maldonado reinforced a lot of what Birkland said.

“What we’re trying to push is call local law enforcement,” if people see drones operators using them suspiciously, Maldonado said.

The FAA is about safety, he said. Drone operators should always yield to manned aircraft.

“It’s a viable technology that can protect lives,” he said. “How do we get all these technologies to work and play together?”

Under its new rules on drone use, the FAA is in the education phase, he said. “At some point we’ll get into the compliance phase.”

Then, operators might face civil penalties for violating the rule.

“The biggest challenge is educating the public,” Maldonado said.