Monitoring snow-melt, inspecting facilities and tracking changes in land-use are just a few ways Washington State University’s Facility Information Resource Management (FIRM) uses small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, more commonly known as drones.

“From giving our engineers views of areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to enabling us to map hundreds of acres at a time, Unmanned Aircraft Systems make it possible for us to do more with less,” said FIRM Manager Bob Nichols.

Nichols said another benefit of using small, remotely-operated aircraft is being able to safely pinpoint structural defaults and other potential hazards before they become major problems.

“Our engineers use a headset that gives them the ability to see through the “eye“ of the drone,” Nichols said. “They can catalog and examine everything they need while remaining safely on the ground.”

Aerial photography is also becoming a major part of campus construction.

A drone operator controls a drone and someone else wears goggles as a drone inspects a construction project.
Bob Nichols flying while FS Construction Manager Jason Harper is using the FPV goggles to inspect the construction of the new Plant Sciences Building

“Regular flights to document our major construction projects provide valuable information to our project teams in the office and out in the field,” Nichols said. “We have even used our aerial imagery to document street marking lines before chip seal applications to make sure that all appropriate marking lines are re‑applied.”

In addition to exploring the Pullman campus, FIRM staff have flown and mapped over one thousand acres at other WSU properties.

Nichols said one of his favorite images taken from the air to date is a 360‑degree shot of Columbia View Orchard, just north of Wenatchee.

He encourages the public to visit WSU’s geographic information systems site, which houses imagery and other data collected from around WSU. It includes everything from aerial imagery to a catalog of each individual tree on the Pullman campus.

Safety first

Nichols stressed that while drone imagery can be amazing and fun, it’s important to follow all Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules.

“To legally operate a sUAS for commercial use, it is required by federal law to obtain a FAA Part 107 certification/license,” he said. “To obtain this license, you are tested on a range of topics which include FAA airspace requirements, weather conditions, basic aeronautical fundamentals, operational safety, and sUAS specific operations rules.”

Operating a sUAS over the Pullman area and campus requires several additional steps in addition to FAA regulations.

“We are required to follow all operation guidelines as defined in Part 107 which includes obtaining authorization to fly in Pullman airport’s class E airspace prior to every flight. In addition to getting airspace approval from the FAA, we also notify the Pullman airport and WSU Police of all our operations. In cases where we will be flying in close proximately to WSU residential units, we notify WSU Housing so that they can inform their residents of the flight.”

Aerial view of an orchard recorded by a drone.
WSU Columbia View Orchard

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