Welcome to the Age of Drones

The River Systems Institute at Texas State University has deployed $30,000 drone to study environmental concerns across the state.
Mon June 18, 2012 8:36 pm
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Texas now has its own drone patrolling the countryside for benevolent purposes, such as surveying bird habitats and tracking the spread of invasives.

"About as far as one can get from the mountains of Pakistan, on a small ranch amid old farm equipment and rustic silos 10 miles southeast of San Marcos, a crew of researchers from Texas State University has been routinely launching an unmanned drone," wrote Asher Price, the Austin American-Statesman 's environment reporter.

Price notes that this $30,000 drone—operated through a $260,000 two-year grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department—is a "far cry from the Predator — its distant and infinitely more lethal CIA-affiliated cousin." (Predator drones, which cost from $4 million to $15 million, are increasingly used in Texas to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border and in Yemen and Pakistan to take out terrorists.)

Texas State's red-and-yellow drone flies some 500 meters above the ground, taking a set of photos that are then analyzed by a team of biologists, spatial analysts, and geographers. This team is led by Thom Hardy, chief science officer at Texas State's River Systems Institute .

What has the drone accomplished so far? Well, Price writes that "it has identified pockets of water in the drought-ravaged Blanco River for removing nonnative fish and conducted surveys of fly-fisherman on a portion of the Guadalupe River." It can be used to "track ecosystems along a proposed pipeline or power line route, Hardy said, and map canal vegetation to help weed control."

Price points out that drone programs (in general) have not escaped controversy and there is significant handwringing over privacy concerns. He notes that Austin-based radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has taken to YouTube to rail against the remotely-operated devices. But Hardy took time to smooth any potentially ruffled feathers about his program, saying it "isn't that different from getting on Google Earth and zooming in to your neighborhood."

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