City’s drone tech flying high

Wilson testing app to share real-time aerial footage

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Reconstructing car crashes, surveying utility damage and evaluating flooding are just a few of the times a drone comes in handy for city of Wilson staff. Thanks to a grant, officials are testing an app that will allow multiple departments to view drone footage.

“We’d been working on traditional uses for drones such as 3D modeling to more quickly document and allow police to clear a crash scene,” said Greenlight Community Broadband General Manager Will Aycock. “We realized it was useful to take that feed and not only capture it but stream it to the operation center and other staff, so we applied for this grant to allow us to develop the platform to transition from just data collection to data streaming.”

US Ignite, a national nonprofit working to promote the integration of smart city technology, selected Wilson for a $10,000 grant late last year, allowing the city to partner with Triangle UAS to develop an app that provides for secure, real-time streaming of video and other data from the city’s three drones.

“One of the immediate-use scenarios we’re talking about is doing assessments. Say we have damage to a feeder or a transition line, especially in more rural areas, we can get eyes on it with the drone, share the info back in the office, which will help us get the right resources headed in the right direction quicker,” Aycock said. “One of the really neat things with the app is we developed it with security and privacy in mind, so we can loop in multiple people. If we need police, electric and gas staff, we can loop those people in wherever they are through the app, and there is even the potential for public access if there is an incident that should go out to the public.”

Rebecca Agner, Wilson communications and marketing director, said in the event of flooding or natural disasters, footage from the drones could eliminate the risk to residents who want to see the damage firsthand.

“During the April 2017 flooding and flooding from Hurricane Matthew, we were getting footage out to the public through the city and the newspaper, and that was without drones,” she said. “We heard from police that doing so really helped keep people out of unsafe driving conditions, so I think the city absolutely would make that feed available during large-scale events in the future.”

Triangle UAS has partnered with the city of Wilson in the past through a Gig East meetup event that focused on residential, commercial and government uses for drones. Aycock said prior to the grant, many of the necessary components — such as streaming video to the drone operator’s tablet — existed, but Triangle UAS put the components together into an easy-to-use app.

“One of the other byproducts of this project is our development of the best practices, forms and manuals required to have a proper drone program within a city, and that’ll be shared across the state,” Aycock said.

Scott Turnbull, national technology leader for US Ignite, said Wilson is not only a leader of smart technology integration across the state, but across the nation.

“Wilson really is at the forefront of thinking on integrating technology,” Turnbull said. “Other cities are thinking about it and they’ve got some drone hobbyists in different departments, but Wilson is leading the way.”

Agner said smart technology as well as the city’s drone integration will be highlighted at the next Gig East, a tech conference scheduled for Oct. 30 at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center. For more information on the event, visit www.gigeast.com.

“I think drones will be like GIS (geographic information system) technology 20 years ago. We used it for very, very specific functions, but as we started to use it, we saw all the possibilities, so the use of GIS exploded,” Aycock said. “I think this — not just drones, but the internet of things — will be very similar, particularly when you look at all of the functions of drones with all the sensors they can be outfitted with, so it really can be shared across all city operations.”

The prototype was functioning this spring, but it was finished for testing in the last month. Aycock said the rollout of the app and integration of the city’s four drone operators will take place in the coming months.

“The technology is ready to go, but we’re still assessing it in controlled environments before it is ready to be deployed in real-world scenarios,” Aycock said. “Because we’re a Gigabit City, we’re developing the technology through this grant, but we’ll also have access to other bright ideas from other communities.”