Innovative uses for drone technology on display in Austin

A drone owned by the Austin-based company DroneSense surveys Butler Park overlooking downtown on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
A drone owned by the Austin-based company DroneSense surveys Butler Park overlooking downtown on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Unmanned aerial vehicles — better known as drones — are finding their place in new applications every day, and Tuesday many of those will be on display in downtown Austin.

Drone companies from central Texas and around the world will showcase the hardware and software they’re building to change the conversation around drones at a Consumer Technology Association exposition for state legislators to learn more about emerging technologies.

DroneSense, based in Austin, is one of the companies that will be exhibiting at the expo. The company, founded in 2015, uses drones to aid police and firefighters in a variety of ways. DroneSense’s co-founders gave KXAN a look at their software setup Monday at Butler Park overlooking the city’s skyline.

“I do a lot of just flying for fun,” co-founder Gerard Juarez said. That’s how he got into drones — using them to capture aerial images that many of us have become accustomed to seeing. His interest in UAVs grew from a hobby into a startup.

“These flying robots,” he said, “they can do things for us.”

He and co-founder Chris Eyhorn saw the potential for the technology to help first responders in the field. “They need every tool at their disposal,” Juarez said. The two developed software that can be used with any kind of drone to make drones easier to use to fight fires, search an area for a suspect or missing person, and reconstruct a crime scene, among other uses.

“An emergency scene has a million things going on,” Eyhorn said, “so anything we can do to reduce pilot workload is really important.”

The DroneSense software, which the company says was just used in north Texas last week during a search for a missing person, can organize live video feeds from multiple drone cameras and overlays the devices’ locations on a map.

“So now, as opposed to having to have a helicopter asset to do a search and rescue mission, we can now have a thousand-dollar drone,” Eyhorn said.

Incident commanders can mark out a search area on the map and send the info to drone operators so they’re not using radios to direct UAVs to specific areas. And with multiple drones in the air, the software allows operators to focus on what they’re doing instead of where the other drone is.

“We see first responders all the time literally bringing their kids’ drones from home because they know the value that it can bring to their job,” Eyhorn said.

Other jobs benefit, too, as Tuesday’s expo demonstrates. Utility companies like Austin Energy are using drones to inspect power lines and oil and gas infrastructure, construction companies are using them to survey sites, and farmers are using them to manage crops. Medical companies can deliver supplies with drones.

A number of companies pioneering those uses are based in central Texas.

“It’s pretty cool to see how the technology really has evolved,” Juarez said. It’ll keep evolving if DroneSense has anything to say about it, from little machines that capture cool pictures to devices that can improve lives and public safety.

“That’s kind of our whole thing,” he said. “If we can just save a life…it’s all worth it.”

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