Insitu founder speaks to lawmakers about drones

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OLYMPIA — If you see an unmanned aerial vehicle flying overhead, it is much more likely looking at local topography or searching for a hiker than spying on you, according to Tad McGeer, owner of Aerovel, a company specializing in unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones.

Many people believe, McGeer, said, that "if you put a camera on an unmanned aircraft, somehow it's sinister and dangerous."

McGeer hosted an informational meeting Wednesday for legislators in Olympia to dispel what he called myths associated with unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as to discuss different uses for the technology. He was a founder, with Andy von Flotow, of Bingen-based Insitu, which is now a Boeing subsidiary that makes unmanned drones and employs more than 800 people in Bingen, White Salmon, Stevenson, Vancouver and Hood River, Ore.

In his presentation to about 50 people, McGeer said that people are much more likely to be photographed by a traffic camera, security system or a cellphone than by an unmanned drone. He doesn't see drones as being able to compete with manned aircraft anytime soon, but believes there is a niche market they can occupy, including geological land surveying, search and rescue operations, wildfire monitoring, and weather tracking.

"I've always wanted to go in that direction," he said.

McGeer also told his audience that a drone has a very narrow lens focus with its camera. To help emphasize his point, he held a tube of plastic pipe up to his eye and told the audience to "imagine taking this up to the Space Needle and trying to spy on people."

"Napoleon's grand army could be right out of frame and you'd never know," he said.

McGeer said the recent media and legislative discussion about drones have lacked expert information, adding that he hoped his presentation would help inform legislators. "They shouldn't be making legislation in a vacuum," he said.

McGeer was referring to House Bill 1771, which he said would dramatically restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Washington. HB 1771 would require any agency using an unmanned drone to receive permission either from the Legislature or local government. The bill did not make the Legislature's cutoff date for action this year, but it will be automatically resubmitted next session.

House Bill 1771 would not just have an effect on Aerovel and similar companies, but also any state agency using unmanned drones for research, including the University of Washington, according to McGeer.

The university uses unmanned aerial vehicles for researching avalanches and snowpack depth, among other things, according to Francesca White, a University of Washington student at the meeting.

Ed McCormack, a research professor at the University of Washington, said one purpose behind using drones is to save money in research and help respond to dangerous situations.

For example, instead of hiring an expensive helicopter to fly over a remote snowpack for study, McCormack could launch a much cheaper unmanned aerial vehicle. Additionally, traditionally dangerous activities, such as setting explosive charges for avalanche control, could be made easier by unmanned drones.

"The drones could make sure the area was clear of people before the charges were detonated, and you wouldn't have a guy hanging out of a helicopter placing charges," he said.

McCormack was not certain that the proposed legislation would have applied to the University of Washington. But, he said, "it didn't look good."