Commercial drones are coming to the skies over North America—and to the tree tops near you.

Drones—or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—will soon become key tools for the tree care industry. Why? One look at a live feed from a UAV hovering over a tree and it’s easy to understand the value that a UAV can bring to tree care operations, at a fraction of the cost of traditional equipment. Rapid improvements in optics, miniaturization, technology and improved materials are making drones smaller, easier to operate, more affordable and more useful. But are they right for your tree care business or operation? We’ll explore whether UAVs can fit into your operation and assist in residential, commercial or municipal jobs.

Some background

Modern UAVs got their start with hobbyist remote control model airplanes, but really took off with the miniaturization of electronics, processors and optics. Material advances allowed for new configurations and smaller, lighter aircraft. Battery technology made power sources smaller, lighter and more affordable.

The most important advance contributing to the rise of UAVs, however, occurred in computing. Computing power is no longer an obstacle for flying, manufacturing or collecting data with UAVs. Programming and control of flight is now a simple task, as new aircraft designs can be created on a laptop and manufactured in a matter of a few hours. Data can be stored on the aircraft for downloading after landing or uplinked while the aircraft is still in flight, then quickly analyzed with specialized software on the Internet.

UAVs are currently used for a wide variety of tasks. The most common uses are for photography, mapping/surveying, agriculture, infrastructure inspection, wildlife and ecosystem monitoring, and two rapidly growing uses: search and rescue and LIDAR mapping.

PHOTO: DAN STALEY

Two main types of UAVs are flown today: fixed-wing and multirotor aircraft. Commercial fixed-wings generally have a wingspan between 2 and 8 feet, can carry payloads between 0.5 and 20 pounds and can fly continuously between 45 and 120 minutes, depending on conditions and payload. Commercial multirotors have 4, 6 or 8 rotors (quad-, hexa- and octocopters), can lift approximately 0.5 to 10 pounds and fly continuously between 20 and 45 minutes, depending on conditions and payload. Batteries and fuels in development will extend these flight times drastically in a couple of years.

Current uses of UAVs

UAVs are currently used for a wide variety of tasks. The most common uses are for photography, mapping/surveying, agriculture, infrastructure inspection, wildlife and ecosystem monitoring, and two rapidly growing uses: search and rescue and LIDAR mapping.

Current uses of interest to the tree care industry include visual and multispectral monitoring of row crops, vineyards, orchards and forests for the agriculture industry; and monitoring pipeline and transmission corridors using visual and LIDAR sensors for the energy industry. Aerial spraying of vineyards, crops and orchards is in rapid development and should be watched closely.

Fixed-wing aircraft, because they fly for longer distances, are the preferred tool to collect data on utility corridors, pipelines, large agriculture and silviculture plots, search and rescue missions, wildlife monitoring, anti-poaching missions for endangered mammals, and geotechnical analysis of mines and hillsides. Most commercial fixed-wing UAVs are launched by hand, but larger models built for longer missions and larger payloads are launched with catapults. Many commercial models are powered by batteries, but liquid fuel models are available as well.

Rotor-wing aircraft, because they can hover, are preferred for detailed inspections of stationary infrastructure such as bridges, cell towers, wind turbines, photovoltaic arrays, and utility transmission and distribution towers. Many wind turbine and cell tower inspections in Europe are no longer performed by human climbers and have been replaced by multirotor aircraft.

Professional videographers and photographers generally use quadcopters or hexacopters. The most popular drones sold today—by far—are battery-powered quadcopters.

Visual image of a property in central Texas, as seen from a drone. Note the detail of the individual trees.

PHOTO: MARTIN OLIVAREZ, FIREFLY IMAGING SOLUTIONS

Data collection

Data currently collected by UAVs are obtained by several different types of devices detecting imagery in distinct spectra.

Visual imagery is collected with either a traditional camera or a high definition video camera on a gimbal (a gimbal is used for image stability and vibration dampening). Visual imagery is used for inspection, marketing, sales and videography, and drone video is becoming a common sight as the technology spreads. A promising new technology called ViDAR, or Visual Detection and Ranging, is in testing now for search and rescue at sea and will trickle down to other uses that will interest arborists, land managers and silviculturists as well.

Infrared imagery is collected with devices often called FLIR, or Forward-Looking Infrared. FLIR optics are used for a wide range of tasks, including inspecting wind turbines, detecting natural gas leaks, viewing heat loss in buildings, finding cracks in solar arrays, and monitoring water stress and turf compaction on golf courses or parks. FLIR devices are now under 1 pound and sometimes flown in tandem with visual optics. FLIR devices are also rapidly decreasing in price.

Multispectral imagery is collected by devices having several detectors tuned to specific wavelengths for specific purposes. Multispectral data are used in agriculture, viticulture, orchard operations and silviculture. Multispectral devices are used to detect leaf reflectance, gross leaf moisture and/or soil water content. But most importantly, it’s used to determine NDVI, or Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, an increasingly used measure of plant photosynthetic activity, especially in precision agriculture and viticulture. Multispectral collectors – rapidly dropping in price – are available for less than 2.2 pounds and are often flown in tandem with other detectors.

CURRENT UAV U.S. FLIGHT LAWS

LAWS FOR COMMERCIAL UAVS ARE COMPLEX AND COULD HAVE CHANGED BY TIME YOU’RE READING THIS ARTICLE.

Currently U.S. hobbyists have only guidelines for maximum flying height, distance and restrictions around airfields. For commercial flight in the U.S., it’s much different.

In 2015 the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) started licensing commercial UAV pilots in a workaround process called a Section 333 Exemption (called a ‘Section 333’ or just ‘333’). This process requires extensive paperwork and training, but pent-up commercial demand meant that thousands of pilots signed up and are now operational.

Also in 2015, the FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Part 107 (called ‘NPRM’ or ‘NPRM 107’), which details a proposed new replacement rule for commercial UAV flight, where the barriers to entry are much lower than under the Section 333 currently in place. The expectation is that these rules will go into effect sometime this year and blow open the doors on the commercial drone market. But that expectation is complicated by several factors at play in current U.S. politics: the 2016 FAA Reauthorization act, and a rider designed to help hobbyist pilots that was added to a bill, the AIRR Act.

Visit FAA.gov/UAS for the more up-to-date legal information on drones.

Data analysis

Most uses of visual data in tree care operations will be with a video camera on a rotor-wing drone for real-time risk and hazard assessment, tree condition for estimating, inventory, streaming video for you and the client, encroachment into a utility right-of-way, a picture of a bird’s-eye view for social media, or video of your staff operations for safety training and review.

Video can be easily linked to a smartphone or other device with equipment that comes with your drone. Video can also be saved to any device, and high-quality still images can easily be extracted from video for any purpose.

Technological advances in the near future

The development and deployment of UAV technology is on a trajectory similar to personal computers and cellphones – and the sky is the limit.

For example, the latest developments of a year ago were already surpassed by something several months ago. Electronics are shrinking and being bundled into a single unit. Radar is being tested for “sense and avoid” technology that weighs little more than a paper clip. Telemetry for real-time UAV location and identification will be available soon, over existing cell networks. The leading drone manufacturers release new, updated, lower-priced craft every few months. Materials continue to get lighter and stronger and easier to manufacture with modern fabrication methods. Orchardists testing aerial spraying will drive the development of tree spraying for urban areas, which will be a disruptive technology in a few short years.

These rapid technological advances may seem like a disadvantage for tree care operations conservatively investing in capital equipment and concerned about rapid obsolescence – and these are valid concerns. But rapid advancements in technology can be an opportunity for operations learning how to use drone technology. Used drones are available at bargain prices. One idea is to purchase an older drone to train yourself or your staff, or to have nearby as a spare. Why? Flying close to trees means you’ll touch a rotor and crash a drone. Learn with an older model first, and then retire it to be a tool or trainer.

Read more: How Drones Could Transform the Landscape Industry from Turf Magazine

Business decision-making

Several questions must be asked before even thinking about purchasing an aircraft. It’s important to understand that you don’t purchase a UAV because it might be useful, or it looks cool, like something Batman would fly. Instead, ask yourself what your company would use a drone for:

  • A sales tool, video for insurance company claims?
  • For images of your holiday light installations, for marketing purposes?
  • To determine hazard or risk assessment?
  • To look for pathogens on individual or several trees? (If so, you’ll probably want a quadcopter.)
  • To monitor open space, wooded areas or large properties?
  • To inventory trees in cities’ rights-of-way? (If so, you’ll want a longer-range multirotor or a fixed-wing.

Next are the optical devices. Check to see how much zoom is available on the video camera, and pay to get more zoom to be able to clearly assess squirrel damage, decay, D-shaped exit holes, fungi, hornets or an angle for a throw line. Are you seeking maintenance contracts with golf courses or large properties? FLIR detectors are useful tools for golf course managers to see areas of compaction and areas needing irrigation. Are you looking to perform detailed monitoring of NDVI for high-value plants or properties? Check the price of the equipment first, then how much it’ll cost you to get the data analyzed, or investigate the options of partnering with another firm to do this monitoring.

What about the capital investment? At the time of this writing, a good complete system will cost you at least $1,500. Then there’s the cost to train your staff, the cost of crashing a drone or three, and the reality of the increased marketability of your new pilot/climber, versus the sales advantage you have of being an arborist with a drone.

There’s also the advantage of showing your client in real time what the issues are, then giving them a drone video or image of their property to help close the sale. Or having a safer crew. Or having drone video of your excellent work on your website next to the “Get a Quote” button.

If this is too much uncertainty for you, you may want to look for some Section 333 pilots instead, and see how managing new relationships and scheduling works for you. Can your pilot(s) respond to a job site/sales call/estimate in a timely manner? Can you easily work with them? Are their fees a good trade off for concerns you may have? Do they process data, too? Pilots are high-functioning professionals and this may be a good option in the face of uncertainty.

One thing is certain—drones are coming to the tree care industry and will change the way tree care is performed. Will you take advantage of this new tool to gain an advantage in your market?