Civilian drones spawning new industry

Bill Capo / Eyewitness News
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Bert Lesley built model airplanes as a boy, but the small four-blade helicopter he now flies is not a toy. It's a sign of the future.

'How much fun are you having?' Lesley was asked. HIs response: 'I'm having a ball.'

The former Coast Guard member wants to start his own business, flying small remote-controlled aircraft that carry cameras or other instruments in search and rescue operations.

'I see them saving lives is what I see them doing,' said Lesley.

Just don't call it a drone.

'No, drones has a very 'Terminator Rise of the Machines' negativity about it,' said Lesley.

'We don't like to be associated with the word 'drones,' because it evokes an image associated with wartime,' said Charles Easterling, founder of Crescent Unmanned Systems.

Civilian remote-controlled aircraft industry pioneers call them UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles.

Charles Easterling and Aaron Grant rent space in the huge Michoud Facility for their three-year-old company designing the Bravo 300.

'It's not a toy, it's a high performance machine,' said Grant. 'It flies for about an hour, it can carry five pounds. We get phone calls every day from all over the world. We've got people in Africa that want to stop poaching, we've got guys in Colorado that want to count Bighorn sheep.'

'If there's a chemical spill. If there's somewhere that a person can't go safely, we can send these lightweight aircraft in, we can survey the damage,' explained Charles Malveaux at the LSU Ag Center. 'I recently flew over the Bayou Corne sinkhole.'

LSU Agricultural Center research engineers Charles Malveaux and Randy Price are using six UAV models in studies to help farmers.

'They just see all kinds of possibility, from checking crops, to consultants that can take it out there really quickly, fly over, see if there's a trouble spot, to spraying herbicide resistant weeds in the future. There's all kinds of possibilities with these things,' said Price.

'You want to make sure that the government is not spying on you, and drones are just another way that potentially the government could spy on people, if they are not used correctly,' warned Marjorie Esman, ACLU of Louisiana executive director.

Esman wants laws to protect privacy.

'That's scary,' said Esman. 'Now if there is probable cause to believe that there is criminal activity, and drones are used pursuant to a warrant, and appropriate constitutional safeguards.

'What we don't want is for these to be the devices of Big Brother that continually stare down the people,' confirmed Easterling. 'What we'd like is for them to be well regulated.'

Officials in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes say they've both looked at the issue of UAVs, but neither owns them or has plans to buy them at this point. In fact, across the country, they're waiting for the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, to make up the rules that govern this industry, including Bert.

The FAA promises rules will be ready next year to cover safety concerns, where UAVs can fly, how they share airspace with passenger jets, and operator training. But UAV makers want permission now to use them in rural areas, saying the FAA is moving too slowly for an industry with growing demand.

'I definitely think it's a multi billion dollar industry,' said Malveaux.

'You'll see an explosion of the technology in a way that we coud never have expected,' added Easterling. 'So when do you design a UAV that people can ride to work? Well, Lady Gaga did that already if you YouTube that,' laughed Grant.

Bert Lesley sees drones handling search and rescue far more efficiently when the next Katrina strikes.

'They already know there's a family here, there's one here, there's one here, because these have already gone out and blanketed the area,' said Lesley.

'That is probably the best and highest use, to save lives,' concluded Esman.


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