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High-Flying Drone Industry Gets Off the Ground in Northeast Ohio
Ohio Ag Connection - 02/20/2024

Robert Nicholson has always been fascinated with aviation. While serving with the Coast Guard in the 2000s, Nicholson flew a helicopter around his base for fun. Today, Nicholson’s interest in all things that zip and zoom is relegated to unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones.

Nicholson’s niche is accident reconstruction – Westlake-based Aerial Visual Technologies utilizes drones to acquire high-resolution images of crash scenes. Imagery is transformed into 2D maps and 3D models, giving investigators a granular level of detail about a traffic incident.

“We can do some amazing things that have not been seen in court,” said Nicholson. “You can’t take a jury to 271 South, but we can bring 271 South in virtual reality to the jury. So we’ve really transformed a lot of the traditional processes into what is now virtual reality with accident reconstruction.”

Nicholson’s company is part of a drone infrastructure taking root both locally and nationwide, where different industries are investing in the technology for numerous applications. In recent years, drone usage in cargo and logistics has transitioned into use cases involving surveillance, monitoring and mapping.

Drones are controlled either by a pilot on the ground or autonomously via on-board computer. Advancements in mobile hardware, computing and camera technology have taken drones from the hobbyist space to a potential market size of $54 billion by 2030.

Although Northeast Ohio is not an active hub for these increasingly ubiquitous flying devices, interest in drone technology continues to grow locally, said Chelsea Treboniak, owner of Critical Ops in Westlake.

Critical Ops, which aims to modernize the business operations of clients across industries, entered the drone marketplace three years ago. Working within the 16 critical infrastructure sectors designated by the U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency showed Treboniak the technology’s potential in manufacturing, emergency services and more.

Safety is the watchword for modern drone advancement, noted Treboniak. For example, autonomous vehicles can be sent into high-rise scaffolding in place of a worker, or used by police to surveil a suspect.

“There are persistent use cases, though they are not advertised as much as we’d love,” Treboniak said. “It goes to the point of what the driver (for drones) is moving forward, and that’s community acceptance.”

An agricultural application

Drone applications are not limited to worker safety. The nation’s farmers are turning to the technology to survey or spray their crops, added Treboniak.

“As we look at agriculture, which also falls into those 16 critical infrastructure sectors, we notice the changes that global warming and climate change are doing,” said Treboniak. “If we can narrow down how agriculture responds best, and how we properly protect our farmlands, that’s another use case for drones.”

Ethan Moore is at the center of this work with Lake Erie Drone, a Wellington company utilizing drones to eliminate pests and diseases from growers’ fields. Moore’s target customers are Lorain County farms of less than 100 acres – many of these farms reside near homes where crop duster applications are a no-go.

Moore’s main pesticide delivery vehicle is a DJI Agras T40, a drone equipped with a 40-liter tank, eight propellers and two spray nozzles. Designed specifically for agriculture, the drone’s naturally low-altitude ensures that chemicals cover a plant safely and effectively, unlike agricultural aircraft that only mist the top of a crop, Moore said.

“Planes move at such velocity that they drift off the field, so they’re not getting into the crop,” said Moore. “And the overspray is going into the surrounding environment, whether that’s onto nature or people’s houses. The benefit of a drone is the propellers push the chemical down into the canopy.”

Moore’s path to drone entrepreneurship began when he tinkered with drone construction in a high-school audio/visual class. The high-flying innovation stayed top-of-mind as Moore entered nursing, where he works long shifts in the Mercy Lorain ICU.

Days off are committed to his budding business, a journey that includes jumping regulatory hurdles set forth by the Federal Aviation Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yet, Moore is excited about the future of his startup and the industry at large.

“There is such a variety of ways that drones will be able to empower people and provide new solutions,” said Moore. “Whether that be through the delivery of pharmaceuticals, flying people with an air taxi, or by spraying crops like I do with my business.”

Getting the word out

Major drone manufacturers like Chinese producer DJI are developing lightweight drones for duties such as maintenance, filming and photography, and medical supply delivery.

Drone entrepreneur Nicholson combines his budding expertise with Gallagher Sharp and other Cleveland law firms to convert traditional physics and data analysis into compelling jury evidence. Cost effectiveness and manpower availability are additional advantages provided by drones, he said.

“If you have an accident that’s over the side of a cliff, would you rather risk a human life or bring in a machine that can do it?” Nicholson said. “We can simply reach areas that humans can’t.”

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