Doyle said the idea of trying a drone came from Patrick Kuhn, a district mechanic and remote-control plane enthusiast who had read about the increasingly smart and versatile machines.
The district contacted Condor Aerial, a North Carolina-based firm that handles commercial sales of the Maveric, a camera-carrying drone originally built for the military that Prioria says has been used by SEAL teams overseas for scouting and surveillance.
The battery-powered drone weighs 2.6 pounds and has a wingspan of just over 2 ½ feet. It can easily be launched by hand like a paper airplane or, thanks to wings made of flexible metal fabric, shot from a six-inch-diameter carrying tube. The drone can fly for as long as 70 minutes in a six-mile diameter, cruising at about 30 mph, with its rotating camera streaming live video to a laptop computer.
It looks like it would make one cool toy but the microprocessors, guidance systems and exotic materials add up to a $65,000 price tag, roughly the same as a 2013 Porsche Cayman S.
Fred Culbertson, Condors chief executive officer, said a drone is a bargain compared to the cost of running and maintaining a full-size airplane, and should be well-suited to the needs of mosquito control.
They can put it on their back, walk into the mangrove, get it into the sky, see where the water pools are and walk right to them, said Culbertson, who will pilot test flights that start Monday at Marathon Airport. You are talking about a lot less manpower, a lot less expense for flying and a smaller team to do the job.
Doyle stressed that the district had not yet decided on buying a drone. He questions whether the infrared cameras, which detect temperature variations, will be able to differentiate pools only a few inches deep from surrounding soggy soils.
Culbertson acknowledged that mosquito hunting will be a learning experience on both sides. But we feel that once we get down and work with them for a couple of days, we can probably tweak things to make it work.
The Federal Aviation Administration is still developing rules for the increasing array of unmanned aircraft systems. For safetys sake, Lyons said, drones fly below 400 feet the same ceiling applied to hobbyists with remote-control airplanes. They also are not allowed over heavily populated areas.
Laptop pilots must undergo training and receive certification before launching drones. But the Maveric, Culbertson said, also has a sophisticated guidance system that allows it to sense and avoid objects and fly on its own in the event of signal loss. After 10 minutes, the autonomous system returns it to the place it was launched, Culbertson said. It also can be programmed with GPS coordinates to fly specific routes. And in the event of a crash, he said, it wouldnt do much damage.
It might put a dent a car, he said. Its a mix of Kevlar and carbon fibers. Its a pretty tough little bird.
For Prioria and Condor, the test is an opportunity to find a potentially promising new market and improve the image of drones.
The public has such a negative connotation toward the word, said Culbertson. When they hear drone, they think Afghanistan. They think high-altitude flights with weapons. Thats not what we do.
While military and law enforcement remain the biggest buyers, the drone market is broadening. Some of it is security-related. He said he has fielded inquiries from port managers who want to look at ships before they dock, from Haiti, India and other counties about using them for border patrols, and from search-and-rescue agencies.
There also is increasing interest in eco-drones. A survey earlier this year by the United Nations Environment Program published in the journal Environmental Development found an expanding use of drones in science and conservation use worldwide.
Police in Brazil purchased 14 to monitor illegal logging in the shrinking Amazon jungle, along with poaching and illegal mining. The World Wildlife Fund employed drones to track poachers in Africa and Asia. They have been used to map the Indonesian rain forest and erosion along a dangerously weak bank of the Missouri River in South Dakota. Early this year, NASA flew a large drone into the sulphur plume from a Costa Rican volcano to gather data that could help develop early-warning detection systems.
During testing in the Keys on Monday, federal wildlife managers will be on hand to see whether a drone might help monitor nesting birds.
As for privacy concerns, Doyle stressed that if drones are used, they would buzz only over uninhabitable swamp areas and mangrove islands.
To be honest, were so mosquito-centric we arent even thinking of that, he said.