Geo-Rhea GIS using sUAS

Deborah Rohrar

Early adopters in the USA are sticking their heads above the parapet perhaps to give themselves a slight advantage for when commercial use of sUAS really becomes legal. You can convince a reporter that it is but not the FAA yet. Good luck to Debra and her team though a professional looking outfit that can provide a useful product to end users.

The Charlestone Gazette Reports

By Julie Robinson

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Debra Rohrer’s “aha” moment came the first time she took a close look at a drone. With a camera mounted to its underside, the miniature unmanned aircraft would be the perfect vehicle to provide aerial data for geographical information systems, she thought.

In her previous position, Rohrer was team leader for the geographic mapping information service group for a local gas transmission company. She arranged for piloted planes to fly over and photograph the land that held the company’s gas lines. Aerial photo data provides information for maps and surveys, but it’s an expensive endeavor.

Without the cost of pilots and fuel, she thought, unmanned aircraft provide immediate data for smaller geographic areas at about 40 percent of the cost. They could fly closer to the ground,

and there is no risk to a pilot.

“I realized that our ‘sweet spot’ would be for smaller acreage,” said Rohrer. “It’s an economical, ecological and affordable solution for aerial data collection.” Traditionally sized, manned aircraft cover significantly more miles because the piloted planes fly faster and higher.

Rohrer’s idea struck her in 2009, the same year she founded Geo-Rhea in Charleston. “Geo” refers to earth, and Rhea is the name of the Greek goddess of the sky and earth. The company uses three unmanned aircraft to record and to transmit aerial data.

She and Richard Morrison, manager of production and technology, experimented for about a year and a half until they could prove that drone technology could capture and transfer aerial data that met GIS specifications.

“We’re on the cutting edge of something,” she said. “There’s a whole market of people who can’t afford manned flights for data collection.”

Although the drones are physically able to fly at altitudes of up to 5,000 feet, Geo-Rhea’s drones fly below 400 feet, well below FAA-controlled airspace. The drones adhere to FAA guidelines for model aircraft. At altitudes that low, the flights do not require flight plans, so response time is quicker than manned flights.

“We can be in the air in five minutes,” said Rohrer, about Geo-Rhea’s smallest drone, Scout, which weighs less than 3 pounds and takes off and lands vertically, like a helicopter. Rohrer purchased it from a Canadian manufacturer. It covers about 25 acres an hour. It’s ideal for coverage of coal stockpiles and construction sites and municipal parcels.

Geo-Rhea’s two larger winged drones require about 30 minutes to get airborne. They were made by a firm in Oklahoma. One’s wingspan is about 10 feet, while the other is 51 inches. Both drones cover about 900 to 1,000 acres an hour, or 38 to 40 miles per hour.

“We have three alternative ways of going,” she said. “Each one meets the needs of different jobs.”

Each of the unmanned aircraft cost between $12,000 and $55,000.

For large jobs, such as lengthy utility rights of way or whole state coverage, a manned plane that flies higher and faster is usually a more cost-effective option.

In addition to utility companies, state departments of highways and environmental protection, potential clients might be emergency responders who could use the data to determine the extent of flooding or fires, and where to send appropriate help.

The Department of Homeland Security and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rely on GIS systems to predict the spread of pandemics or other threats.

“People ask me, ‘If we have Google Earth, why do we need you?'” Rohrer said. “The answer is that you don’t know the vintage or accuracy of the sources. When you’re making decisions based on that data, you need to know how it looks today.”

Geo-Rhea is the first company Rohrer has founded. She has worked in the engineering services business sector for 27 years, but her undergraduate education was in liberal arts. She landed her first job with an engineering firm in North Carolina, where she was assigned low-level engineering work.

“I sat down at the computer and never got up,” she said. “My dad was an engineer and a pilot, so there’s probably some genetic stuff there that haunts me.”

In that first job, she learned computer-aided design, then started teaching others. She and her husband, Craig, moved to Charleston in 1994 when he landed a position with Union Carbide, now Dow Chemical.

Rohrer worked for a small engineering firm before her job with the gas transmission company. Her job with the mapping group was outsourced in 2009. As she considered her professional options, she looked for ways to use her knowledge of GIS mapping and to remain in the Charleston area.

“I realized that this science is my passion, and that I’d become passionate about West Virginia,” she said. “I’m an outsider who chooses to stay in West Virginia. We didn’t want to leave here.”