Aerial drones handy tool for homeowners

Hey there neighbor. Mind if I borrow your drone?

Lending tools such as a power saw or hammer drill to a friend is a time-honored tradition. But having a friend with high-tech gadgets such as an aerial drone, can take the do-it-yourself tradition to new levels, especially in situations where conventional techniques just won’t do.

Following a spate of gale force winds this past January, one Bar Harbor homeowner discovered pieces of broken roof shingles in the yard on the lee side of the house. If the damage was limited to just a few tabs, repairs might be able to wait for warmer weather. The worry, of course, was that there was now a hole in the roof’s protective layer capable of allowing melting snow or rain to penetrate the attic.

The home’s location on the side of a hill precluded any easy inspection of the area where the shingles probably came from. The area in question was more than 30 feet off the ground on the downhill side. There was no vantage from which to view it from below.

A conventional inspection, using a series of ladders, was risky due to below-zero wind chills and high gusty winds.

A quick telephone call to pilotless drone owner Scott Allen in Bar Harbor, however, offered an innovative solution.

Scott Allen assembles his Phantom drone prior to inspecting the damaged roof. PHOTO BY EARL BRECHLIN

Scott Allen assembles his Phantom drone prior to inspecting the damaged roof.

Allen and his wife, Pam, own the Mosley Cottage Inn and Town Motel in Bar Harbor. The four-rotor Phantom drone he is flying now is his second after getting into the hobby.

Four compact motors made with powerful rare-earth magnets drive the propellers that move the drone. A high-definition video camera is mounted on a gimbal underneath. It keeps the camera level no matter what tilt the drone may have.

The operator controls the drone from a hand-held console. Many, like the Phantom model owned by Allen, use an iPhone and app for a display.

In addition to beaming photos of what it is seeing from above, the drone also records video of its travels to a tiny memory card on board. A button on the iPhone also allows it to capture still images.

One January day, Allen spun the drone 360 degrees to capture the spectacular view 200 feet overhead. He eased it closer to the roof. With touches of a finger on the iPhone, he snapped still images and directed his flying robot to shoot video.

Before launching, the drone was put through an orientation process that records its starting position. Using signals from as many as 17 Global Positioning (GPS) satellites more than 22,000 miles up in orbit, it keeps track of where it is. Should it lose communication with the ground station, or suddenly begin to lose power, it will automatically fly itself back to its starting point.

A compact control unit linked to an iPhone is used to control the drone. PHOTO BY EARL BRECHLIN

A compact control unit linked to an iPhone is used to control the drone.

Most models can remain aloft for as long as 20 minutes on a single battery charge.

After downloading the images to a computer, and zooming in, it became clear that at least two shingle tabs recently had broken off. Two other spots with older damage, and one tiny area of concern in a valley were visible. While needing to be addressed, it wasn’t an emergency.

The stills and video were later emailed to a local roofer so he could provide an estimate and schedule the repair.

Recently, a crew from Ellsworth Builders Supply used a drone to inspect the roof at the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor without having to use ladders or extensive staging.

Allen primarily uses his drone, which he transports in a custom, foam-lined case, to capture images of the spectacular scenery on Mount Desert Island.

“I really like flying it along the Shore Path in Bar Harbor, before it gets windy really early in the morning,” he said.

So far, Allen, as well as other drone owners on MDI, just fly them for fun. Commercial use is banned by the federal government.

Current Federal Aviation Administration policies prohibit the commercial use of drones for a fee. Recreational use by hobbyists is allowed with some restrictions on where they can be flown. Airspace around airports is restricted as well as most federal lands. Drone operators are not allowed to take off or land from anyplace in Acadia National Park.

Drones range in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.

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