The Drone Report: Do Unmanned Aerial Systems Have a Place in Hunting and Fishing?

A still image taken from a drone scouting mission in the Northeast.

Three years ago, Cy Brown mounted a $10,000 thermal-imaging camera to a $100 foam airplane and launched it over his neighbor's cow pasture. The lifelong hunter and radio-controlled model plane builder had just graduated from the University of Louisiana at Layette in electrical engineering, but wasn't sure his contraption would fly. As the plane gained elevation, the video feed cleared up. Little white hotspots of cattle stood out against the neon purple farmland.

"Holy cow," his buddy said. "We have our very own predator drone."

Since that first flight, Brown has modified and re-modified his plane to run missions over fields infested with feral hogs across southern Louisiana. Now, in a typical night, he'll cover 1,000 to 3,000 acres spotting pigs with the plane then radio their position to his friend James Palmer who moves in with a night vision-equipped AR-15.

The team films their success and posts them to YouTube, dramatically cutting images from the drone with footage from a camera mounted on Palmer's rifle. Unwittingly, they've become part of a battle between state game officials who want to outlaw the technology during hunting season and drone pilots who just don't see the ethical dilemma.

Beefing Up Regulation

In January the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved measures banning the use of drones for scouting or hunting wild game. Montana and Saskatchewan followed suit in February. Montana officials likened drones to trail cameras and baiting.

"It's just not part of our hunting culture," said Ron Aasheim, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson.

By mid-March the Alaska Board of Game chimed in, banning the use of "any device that has been airborne, controlled remotely, and used to spot or locate game with the use of a camera or video device."

Forty-three states have proposed stronger legislation, but nearly all relate to law enforcement and privacy issues--not hunting. Land Tawney, executive director of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association, wants to change that. His nonprofit, dedicated to keeping public wilderness wild, has worked closely with officials in Colorado and Montana to get drone laws on the books.

"When you see these things work around wild animals," Tawney told me, "it's just scary."

This video was shot by Eirik Solheim with a quadcopter outside of Oslo, Norway.

"There are existing laws in many states that regulate flying in and hunting--the 24- and 48-hour rules," Tawney said. "But airplanes are big and loud, (and) pilots are required to file flight records, so they're much easier to enforce. All that's out the window with drones. So we went out and asked the states if their existing laws apply to this technology, and if they don't, to consider action."

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has 15 chapters in 20 states, all actively talking to lawmakers (Wyoming and Arizona, Tawney said, are poised to move quickly). If those 20 states ban drone use during the hunting season, it would effectively cover 97 percent of federal public land, he said.

Federal regulation on drone use is minimal. The FAA lumps drone use into two categories: commercial and noncommercial flight. Commercial use is banned, but a recent court ruling could change that. As inexpensive drones flood the market, the FAA has been aggressive about policing that distinction. Cy Brown and other pilots with a prominent YouTube channels have received threatening letters and phone calls--despite not making a dime on their drone flights.

For noncommercial flights, current FAA policy boils down to four basic rules: drones must stay away from airports and other flight-controlled airspace; they can fly no higher than 400 feet; they must stay within the line of sight of the operator; and they can't fly near crowds.

A quad-rotor on patrol over Prince William Sound. Courtesy: ACUASI

Drones of Prey?

Ro Bailey, a retired Air Force Brigadier General, is the director of the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks--one of six official FAA test sites approved last December. She doesn't like the word "drone" as it conjures up images of bomb-dropping military machines. Instead, she prefers the FAA's terminology: Unmanned Aerial System.

"My team has flown 39 unmanned, overhead flights, with either a small electric rotter or fixed-wing plane," Bailey said. "Every bit of our video shows big animals don't even know we're there."

The team has captured images of foxes, moose, and a polar bear sow with cubs.

"With sea lions and ice seals, the difference between manned and unmanned aircraft is most striking," Bailey said. "They're not diving over their flippers, getting out of the way. We've all seen that footage shot from an airplane. With an unmanned system, they don't budge. And we only fly at around 200 feet."

The surge of drone footage being uploaded to YouTube seems to confirm Bailey's observations. Animals conditioned to predation from above--turkeys, squirrels, waterfowl--boogie when a drone takes flight. But big-game animals that are not wired to fear birds of prey just don't care. In some cases, they're even curious (like the deer in the video below).

Farmers to Food Plots

In a statement last November, the FAA seemingly granted commercial use to farmers wanting to monitor their fields and livestock from above. Dozens of drone builders have stepped up, marketing their products for fieldwork, which could have very real implications for wildlife land managers.

Indiana-based Precision Drone manufactures two systems with infrared cameras that can map crop health. Plants give off a signature colored light under infrared; the brighter they glow, the higher the photosynthesis production, said Adam Sheller, Precision Drone's sales director. Different plants generate different degrees of color, so crop stress and weeds or invasives can be spotted from 300 feet -- saving the farmer a long walk or tank of gas.

What works for the farmer could work for the hunter. Land managers could monitor food plots, analyze mast yields, or simply get a better overall sense of their property's natural deer forage.

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A crop health image map, shot from a drone with an infrared camera, highlights photosynthesis production and crop stress. Courtesy: Precision Drone_

"Some guys want to track their deer population, too," Sheller said. "I don't know anyone who's done it, but it's definitely being talked about. It's not necessarily for hunting, but so they can prove their numbers to DNR to better manage against deer damage ... The more comfortable people are with drones, the more things they're going to try. Most of our farmers are outdoorsy people. They're going to find ways to use drones."

The Precision Drone hex-copter retails for $17,000, but several off-the-shelf systems cost a fraction of that and do much the same thing--minus the infrared imaging. For less than $1,000 anyone could buy a drone to take daytime aerial property photos, then feed the images into stitching software to generate a super-sized, hour-old aerial map. The potential benefit is enormous.

But, this is where the line between scouting and hunting gets blurry.

"Letting farmers use this technology to feed more people, I applaud that," said Tawney, of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "But sending the drone up 10 minutes before you head into the woods to determine where you'll sit, that's crossing a line."

The worst-case scenario, Tawney said, is if legal drones are used to target specific animals. "The guy who buys a commissioner's tag for $150,000, then hires an army of guides to chase the Spider Bull around for a month, that guy could hire an army of drones. And as the technology gets better and more affordable it could fit into many more hunters' arsenals."

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Could a palm-sized drone become essential gear for the backcountry hunter of the future?
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Advancing Technology

Despite new regulations and strong but scattered opposition, the national drone obsession seems unstoppable. One drone maker, Parrot, which sells a camo-clad AR Drone in Apple Stores, has moved 500,000 units since 2010. Another, DJI, maker of a popular quad-copter, is estimated to have sold 100,000 systems.

Different styles of drones have different capabilities, some lending themselves well to hunting and scouting applications. Drone builder, Hubsan, makes a $200 palm-size quad-copter that live-streams video footage to the controller. Range is limited, but it's only a matter of time before the distance hurdle is passed. With today's technology, picking a buck out of a herd of does in a cornfield with a daytime camera cruising at 300 feet is not easy. Most consumer-level drones have a wide-angle camera or GoPro attached. They're great for surf movies, but need to get extremely close--within a few yards--for tight shots of wild animals. While it seems true that most big-game animals don't mind a drone's company, how many hunters would risk spooking a good buck just to shoot video of him? But like cellphones, drone systems will certainly get smarter, smaller, and less expensive--perhaps in the very near future.

This is what most state game officials I talked with feared, and said their laws were a response to. Not the drones of today, but the drones of tomorrow.

"Our point is not about what's out there today," said Randy Hampton, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "It's that technology changes very quickly."

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A fixed-wing drone with thermal imaging camera spotted this group of hogs moving across a rice field. Courtesy: Cy Brown_

Austin White is the marketing director of Aerial Media Pros, one of the largest drone retailers in the U.S. Three years ago, the company started in a garage. Now they own a two-story building in Costa Mesa, Calif., with plans to expand later this year. They sell close to 200 consumer-level drones a month and field 200 to 300 phone calls a day. His girlfriend's father is a hunter, so White outfitted a DJI Phantom 2--a $500 quad copter--with a GoPro for scouting.

"Throwing the copter up, seeing a deer, then running over and shooting it? That would never happen," White said. "But scouting a ridgeline, determining what direction to move, that's a real application. It's a bummer states are outlawing that."

White is not a hunter ("I hate camping and don't like getting dirty," he said), but he owns guns, shoots at a range, and since talking to his girlfriend's father about potential deer-drone tactics, he's interested in hitting the woods. Drones, he said, could open up the outdoors to a whole new kind of hunter. "Don't be against technology," he said. "I'm sure many hunters use GPS, or other types of technology that help them find their way. This is just another tool that's coming down the line."

An Uncertain Future

Hunting applications aren't the only way drones could affect sportsmen.

Capt. Devin Denman of Swamp Stallion Fishing Adventures has effectively used his drone to spot fish in the marshland of southern Louisiana. (Researcher Ro Bailey notes they've mapped salmon nests on the Snake and Clearwater Rivers in Alaska, too.) Footage of a redfish recorded mid-flight and relayed to a computer at a ground station could even compute its size and GPS coordinates, according to Denman. "That technology is right at the edge of possibility," he said.

"The best action for speckled trout happens under a huge bait ball," Denman said. "If you find a swarm of birds diving on shrimp, chances are you'll hit your creel limit pretty quick."

Unlike binoculars, drones can see above tall marsh grass and down into the water on a sunny day. Birds appear easier to see, too, contrasted against the water, not a sunlit sky. "You can spend 30 or 40 gallons of gas running around looking for birds in an area, or send up the plane that cruises 30 miles per hour in level flight," he said. Because of the FAA law on commercial flight, Denman has shuttered his guide service to further develop drone technology.

He's currently applying for a federal experimental flight certificate, so he can push beyond the visual line of flight rule and, he hopes, help local fish and game agents count bird populations along the Mississippi. "There are algorithms I can run through my plane to identify pelicans and seagulls and other bird species out there on the barrier islands," he said.

Like Cy Brown, the feral hog hunter, Denman is in complete support of the new laws in Colorado, Montana, and Alaska. "That surprises people, but there are a lot of things we shouldn't be doing with drones," he said. "There are a lot of benefits, and a lot of drawbacks, like anything else."

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Command & Control: A drone hunter's ground station on a night shoot in Louisiana. Courtesy: Cy Brown
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"The way we go after pigs," Brown said, "I don't even consider that hunting. It's extermination. If you have cockroaches, you go at them by any means. Wild hogs in the south are no different, except they cause more damage."

Tawney and the state officials I spoke with agree: Targeting invasive species is not the same thing as hunting big game. And the potential upside of drones for farmers, wildlife biologists, and land managers is obvious. What they don't want is outfitters skirting no-fly rules or D.I.Y. backpack hunters sending a handheld drone, or a flock of drones, over a ridge they don't want to hike.

"When it comes to hunting with new technology, exactly where that ethical line is, I'm not sure I can point to it, but I think we can feel it," Tawney said. "And it's our job as sportsmen and conservationists to enforce it."