DelDOT explores uses for drones

A drone hovers into the parking lot of the Transportation Management Center in Smyrna. Delaware State News/Matt Bittle

SMYRNA — Delaware’s Department of Transportation has only been using drones for two years and it’s barely scratching the surface of what unmanned vehicles can do.

However, the agency has already seen results.

DelDOT utilized drones at the February 2017 inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, providing an eye in the sky for authorities. It also aided in the capture of several thieves at Firefly in June.

“We had a thermal drone, obviously it picks up heat signatures, and the individuals were sneaking underneath the fence and they were heading into the tents. In the past, they’ve basically gone through the tents and stolen things, and we were able to put the drone up,” DelDOT homeland security planner Dwayne Day recalled.

“My team and I, we kind of located who we thought they were and we tracked a group of three and as we tracked it, the Dover PD, they came and we were all watching it on the screen, and as the individuals approached us they went to apprehend them and one of the individuals took off running.

“As they apprehended him, we flew the drone tracking him as he ran and he kind of just stopped. Well, the law enforcement was still right behind him because they were watching it in the command center also.”

At the Transportation Management Center Monday, DelDOT employees detailed how they use drones. The agency has 12 drones and eight certified pilots, with another one in training and hopes of buying two more unmanned aerial vehicles. Including extras like additional batteries, DelDOT’s drones range in cost from about $1,000 to $20,000.

The devices enable DelDOT to improve efficiency in several ways, allowing quicker land surveying, roadway maintenance and oversight of incidents like serious car crashes.

“We’ve had an issue with respect to flooding on Route 1 south of Dewey Beach for years and years and years, and they were able to use drone technology to see a depression in the road that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen or would have been more difficult to identify and so they were able to raise that part of the roadway and make a significant improvement,” Gov. John Carney said shortly after piloting a small drone and touring the agency’s center of operations.

Thanks to a converted DART bus, DelDOT is able to operate drones remotely too. The mobile command center contains stations for charging drones, a computer displaying a live view of the airspace above Delaware and a map showing where restrictions are in place, such as around Dover Air Force Base.

A thermal camera-equipped drone owned by the Department of Transportation sits on a table.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires drones to be registered and pilots to become qualified to fly them, and the devices must remain no higher than 400 feet and within the line of sight of the operator on the ground.

DelDOT has some special privileges, such as flying at night, but in most respects, the agency is just like a drone hobbyist in terms of needing FAA approval.

Gov. Carney took over the controls briefly, flying a drone for the first time. Joking that he wanted a basic model because he didn’t want to crash one worth thousands of dollars, the governor used an iPad to maneuver the device.

Thanks to a camera attached to the drone, the iPad displayed a live feed of what the drone “saw” as it darted through the sky above the parking lot, just a few hundred feet away from cars whizzing by on Del. Route 1.

In addition to FAA regulations, Delaware has a few restrictions around drones, prohibiting them from being used to harass someone or from flying over “critical infrastructure” or large public events. Drone use is also restricted in state parks.

Gov. Carney relayed a story of a drone buzzing by his second-floor Legislative Hall office last year, although he noted he later learned the operator wasn’t trying to spy on him.

“It was a little unnerving,” he said with a chuckle.

The future of drones and other unmanned vehicles is bright, officials believe.

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