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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Drones being tested to track fish, wildlife

Phil Groves, a fishery biologist with Idaho Power Co., is seen with a drone helicopter in Idaho. Groves is testing the Hexakopter in counting salmon nests in Idaho. (Associated Press)
Kathleen Kreller Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Idaho Power Co. fish biologist Phil Groves doesn’t want to see any more of his colleagues injured or killed in helicopter crashes while doing research.

So he has embraced technology typically used by the military and hobbyists: drone aircraft.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game frequently surveys salmon nests in streams and tributaries. It’s common practice to use planes and helicopters for biologists’ annual wildlife counts.

In August 2010, a helicopter chartered by Fish and Game crashed in downtown Kamiah, killing biologists Larry Barrett and Danielle Schiff and pilot Perry Krinitt.

“It really struck home hard for me,” Groves said. “I had flown in that helicopter. I had known Larry Barrett very well.”

To find a safer, more affordable way to count fish nests, Groves used his research skills to find a good alternative. Idaho Power ended up investing about $16,000 in small, maneuverable, remote-controlled aircraft from Germany called Hexakopters.

Groves and his Idaho Power colleagues sometimes test their little aircraft, with red and blue LED lights flashing, in a Garden City field near the Boise River.

“If someone has seen it flying around they’d say ‘What the heck is that?’ ” Groves said.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan die down, technology used by the military is being scaled down, reinvented and adapted for civilian purposes.

That includes remote aircraft, which the Federal Aviation Administration terms unmanned aircraft systems. The rest of the world calls them UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles – or just drones.

The FAA worries about interference with commercial air traffic – and drones don’t have technology to help them avoid in-air collisions.

Also, drones come in a huge range of sizes and with varying degrees of power and operator abilities. Crashes pose a serious risk to those below, officials say.

So the FAA said it wouldn’t allow any but government and hobbyist use of the machines.

But earlier this month, Congress inserted language into an FAA funding bill allowing broader use of drones – after intense lobbying by drone makers and potential customers.

Under the new law, within 90 days the FAA must allow police and first-responders to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they keep them within 400 feet of the ground and meet other requirements. The agency must also allow for “the safe integration” of all kinds of drones into U.S. airspace, including those for commercial uses, by Sept. 30, 2015.

It must also come up with a plan for certifying operators and handling airspace safety issues, among other rules.

For drone makers, the change in the law comes at a particularly good time. With the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, manufacturers have been awaiting lucrative new opportunities at home.

The market for drones is valued at $5.9 billion and is expected to double in the next decade, according to industry figures. Drones can cost millions of dollars for the most sophisticated varieties to as little as $300 for one that can be piloted from an iPhone.

Meanwhile, Idaho Power’s Groves is in a multiyear test of his drones against the traditional helicopter method for counting salmon nests in Idaho waterways with dams.

So far, the data gathered via Hexakopter are right on, Groves said. And no biologists have been hurt or killed in the process.