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Could Rochester be world's drone capital?
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Remote Sensing

Jan. 17, 2015
Sean Lahman


(Photo: Mark Lennihan / AP)

On Monday, CNN announced that it was working with federal regulators to develop ways to use unmanned aerial vehicles as a newsgathering tool.

It's a significant step, since the Federal Aviation Administration generally prohibits commercial use of these devices, commonly referred to as drones or UAVs. They're concerned about these inexpensive fliers getting in the way of commercial aircraft, of course, but the agency has been slow to adapt existing rules to accommodate the new technology.

In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to develop a plan for getting drones integrated into the national airspace, but progress has not come quickly. To date, the FAA has granted exemptions to just 13 companies, many of them in the motion picture business.

As a journalist, I'm excited about CNN's effort. Drones can aid in reporting and providebreathtaking views by shooting still images or video from a few hundred feet in the air. CNN senior vice president David Vigilante echoed those sentiments in a statement.

"Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high quality video journalism using various types of UAVs and camera setups," Vigilante said.

But I'm excited for a more important reason. Once the FAA issues its drone regulations — a plan is due in September of this year — the drone business is going to explode.

Rochester ought to be at the epicenter of that explosion.

Look, we know all about photography here. Even in the digital age, we've got a tremendous aggregation of experts in imaging science working in this region, some of the brightest minds in the world.

But the coming boom isn't simply about capturing cool images. It's about harnessing computing power to do things with those images. And we've got the experts in that field as well.

Pictometry International, a Henrietta-based company, developed the technique of stitching together aerial photos from low-flying airplanes to create overhead images that look three-dimensional. They've also developed software and algorithms that can pinpoint locations in those photos by latitude and longitude, and even make precise measurements of things like the square footage of a building's roof.

The folks at Exelis Geospatial Systems in Gates work from even greater heights. Their researchers have designed and built the camera systems for the majority of commercial imaging satellites that have been launched, starting with the first one in 1999. Even from 373 miles in the air and traveling at 17,000 mph, they can pinpoint a spot on the ground to within a few meters.

It's this sort of technology that's really going to drive the commercial applications of drones. Software that can analyze images taken from drones to do new things, or to do old things in new ways.

Farmers could use drones to look for crop or irrigation problems, or even to keep a watch on their livestock. Utility companies could use drones to inspect pipelines or electrical wires. Imagine how a drone could change the job of a building inspector, for example, by using its camera to take measurements and identify trouble spots in areas that are difficult and dangerous for a person to go.

There are other pockets of local expertise, not the least of which is at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The school was selected by the FAA in 2013 to conduct research and testing of safe integration of drones into the national airspace system, one of a few dozen universities in the northeast collaborating on that work. RIT also has the highly regarded Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Lab, which is going to help churn out the new engineers who will put those drones to work.

Rochester ought to be the drone capital of the world. We're uniquely positioned in advance of a boom, and everyone knows how desperately we need good paying high tech jobs.

Let's make it happen.

Sean Lahman's column appears in print on Sundays. Follow him on Twitter @SeanLahman, or reach him by email at SLAHMAN@DemocratAndChronicle.com or at (585) 258-2369.

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Original Source: Democrat & Chronicle