KREMMLING — On a cold morning near Kremmling, spots of clouds and blowing snow did nothing to deter members of the U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, and Colorado Parks & Wildlife from launching the Raven RQ-11A, a small unmanned aircraft system, or drone, for a test drive.
The high-pitched buzz of the hand-launched aircraft, which has a wing span of 54 inches, is 36 inches long, and weighs 4.2 pounds, cut through the cold morning air like a sharp knife through warm butter.
After running through pre-flight checks, the three person team consisting of a pilot, mission operator, and observer, lobbed the remote controlled drone into the air like a paper airplane.
The plane climbed and within seconds became a small dot on the skyline resembling a bird flying across the morning sky.
The buzzing from the small unmanned craft's propeller slowly disappeared and then returned as the pilot circled the small plane back to its starting point using a handheld remote control.
As the plane came closer, the pilot turned sharply upward to “stall” the craft, which then took a nose dive and broke apart upon impact.
“It's designed to do that,” said Leanne Hanson, a biologist with the USGS in Fort Collins.
While the drone is entertaining to say the least, and reportedly fun to fly, the small unmanned aircraft could provide wildlife officials with a safer and improved method to conduct wildlife surveys.
Wildlife officials will be testing the viability of the aircraft to detect and count breeding Greater sage-grouse in the Middle Park area.
The new system has seen successful in other projects completed by wildlife officials and now will be tested to see if the system could be utilized as a suitable platform in Grand County and Colorado.
The main question that remains to be answered by the use of the aircraft is whether the craft can fly low enough to gather data on breeding Greater sage-grouse while not disturbing the birds. Currently, Greater sage-grouse behavior around the unmanned aircraft is unknown. So whether the craft will disturb the birds has yet to be determined.
The system utilizes small cameras, both normal and infrared, to detect wildlife and provide officials with valuable data. Images are transmitted live from the aircraft to computer screens where the aircraft's operators can count the number of sage-grouse at a known breeding area, or lek.
Wildlife officials are hopeful the project will allow them to gather important information concerning the number of sage-grouse in a breeding area and could even be utilized to discover new leks or access leks that can't be accessed by foot or vehicle.
The system will be tested during the normal breeding time for Greater sage-grouse, which mate during the spring.