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

Field & Stream
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.

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."

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

Advancing Technology

Despite new regulations and strong but scattered opposition, the natio [truncated for length]