Idaho Power uses drones to find salmon in the Snake River

Jamie Grey

BOISE — The state legislature is currently debating some issues that deal with drones, including whether Idaho may become a testing site and how privacy issues will be handled. Drones are small-unmanned remotely controlled aircraft, and some are even used for biology research.

Each fall, Idaho Power uses aircraft, usually helicopters, to survey Chinook Salmon nests on the Snake River and make sure the company’s projects aren’t negatively impacting the threatened species.

Biologists say it’s proven not to always be the safest option. There have been crashes; some state biologists have even died while surveying.

“Idaho Fish and Game lost two biologists and a pilot doing a red survey on the Clearwater River,” Idaho Power fisheries biologist Phil Groves said. “They had a crash and all people on board were killed. That … elevated the use of an unmanned air system as a potential way to conduct our surveys for salmon nesting.”

Groves, a fishery biologist, has had close calls himself while surveying for the power company, including a recent flight during some wind.

“The pilot was good and he was able to pull us out, but there was a few moments where I thought we were actually going to be pushed into the ground, and that was going to be it,” Groves said.

That’s where drones come in. Initially, Groves bought a couple and was told they could legally fly them categorized as hobbyists, but after a successful first season of surveying, the FAA in Washington D.C. called.

“We weren’t in their database, and they said no, I’m sorry, you’re grounded, you’re shut down. So we had to find an alternative way to move forward,” Groves said.

Groves says public agencies have an easier time getting certified to fly drones, so they reached out to a University of Alaska program that specializes in this area. They struck a deal and carried on with unmanned aerial surveys, with the Alaskans’ fancy equipment.

“It’s really unique. The machine actually takes off on its own, goes to a preprogrammed elevation, you set up weigh points for it to follow, and you tell it how fast you want to go and everything. Then you click a button and away it goes and does it’s thing,” Groves said.

Groves says the idea is to eventually keep some helicopter tours, but make drones the primary mode of survey. It’s something he says is safer and actually pretty fun too.

“All my teachers that said I’d never make any money playing video games, they’re wrong!” Groves said.
Additional images and a video clip are available for viewing on the KTVB website.