Maine’s Public Sector Agencies Are Warming to Drones. Where is the Private Sector?

Maine, like most of New England, isn’t known as a drone industry hotbed. Like neighboring Vermont and New Hampshire, the state hasn’t moved to pass legislation that would speed the pace of drone commerce. In fact, resistance to drone flying due to privacy concerns, especially in small towns in rural Maine, remains high.   But quietly, Maine is making substantial progress, partly due to the existence of a state-level executive task force charged with promoting drone activities on all fronts – particularly by public agencies.

One of those public fronts is infrastructure inspections.  Every six years, the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) inspects about 200 bridges statewide. Traditional inspection methods using field crews with cranes and ladders and gas-powered road vehicles and aircraft are expensive, dangerous and time consuming.  They’re also less precise than ones using drones with high-powered zoom and thermal imaging cameras that can detect infrastructure weaknesses more precisely and access remote areas, even in the darkness, if necessary.

With drones, roadways need not be closed or traffic interrupted. Since 2018, the MDOT has deployed specially equipped inspection drones to improve the agency’s ability to cost-effectively monitor and repair the state’s bridges, ensuring the steady flow of commerce and physical and public safety.

Another key drone niche is conservation.  Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands has begun purchasing drones to help monitor and map the state’s natural resources.  The first purchase of 20 drones occurred in 2020 – but the agency’s fleet – which now includes the Maine Forest Service – keeps expanding, as new missions are added.

The Forest Service uses drones to assess the effect of pests, plant diseases, logging activities and natural disasters on forest health and composition.  Drones are also used to detect the effects of blue-green algae growth on water quality to ensure compliance with conservation easements.  More recently, the Maine Natural Areas Program — a program of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry — has deployed drones to monitor the shrinking of the state’s wetlands in response to climate change.

Another key area is law enforcement.  Maine’s state police announced its first purchase of police UAVs six years ago with the initial hope that drones would enhance their criminal and accident scene analysis and search and rescue missions.  There were high expectations that drones would expand rapidly into additional niches as their cost-saving and utility benefits became obvious. Controversy over the potential for police drone abuses soon slowed that momentum, however.

Presently, only a relative handful of local departments have acquired even a drone or two, which was evident last year after the mass shooting by a trained military veteran that killed 18 in the town of Lewiston, Maine.  Local police refused to enter nearby wooded areas in search of the suspect for fear of suffering mass casualties, and subsequent overflights by a single police helicopter failed to detect the suspect’s presence.

In theory, the state police might have scrambled a drone equipped with thermal imaging cameras to conduct a more thorough and rigorous search – but that search never happened.  The suspect was eventually found dead by suicide.

There is some evidence that Maine’s public sector drone use might eventually spur broader business and industrial use, but progress thus far is slow.  Christopher Taylor, CEO of Viking Unmanned Aerial Solutions, which manufactures a variety of UAVs, owns the only drone manufacturing firm in Maine.  A U.S. air force veteran, he’s been fighting to promote drones for commercial use in Maine since 2005.  He sees enormous possibilities for drone expansion into agriculture (the state’s leading economic sector), oil and gas pipeline inspections, real estate and fire-fighting, among other key niches.

How much of an impact could drones have in Maine?  A 2015 report by the Virginia-based Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) estimated that drones could contribute $82 billion to the U.S. economy and create 103,776 jobs by 2025.  The Maine share was estimated to be a whopping $79 million, with 810 jobs created.

“UAVs can change how we live. But our drone use is behind in Maine,” Taylor says.

One new and promising sign of Maine’s growing public support for drones came in December, when city officials in Auburn, the state capital, decided to replace its annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display with a drone light show.  The event came just two months after the mass shooting that shocked the residents of a state unaccustomed to facing big city problems like rampant crime and ugly gun violence.

“We decided, you know what, this is the year to do it,” said Auburn city official Jennifer Boenig, who coordinated the event, the first in Maine’s history. “We just thought after the year that we have had that it would be nice to go big.”

Maine, like Massachusetts and Vermont, could surely go bigger.  A number of new drone service providers, including Waterford-based Drone Imaging, which offers the full range of DJI professional drones, are eagerly standing by.  With more legislation and a greater commitment to drones from the governor, the state can fulfill its untapped drone potential.

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