Drones. Unmanned aircraft. Brian Whiteside likes to refer to them as “aerial robots.” No matter the moniker, they are the future, he says.
Whiteside, a 1988 Downey High grad, is president of VDOS Global, a company that got a huge boost last week when the Federal Aviation Administration granted it and three other commercial companies exemptions from manned aviation rules. Until then, the only other exemptions were to seven movie and TV companies that used the drones for aerial filming.
His company expects to be at the forefront by using unmanned aircraft to inspect oil rigs, platforms and other energy facilities in the Gulf of Mexico come April. The drones will perform work currently being done by people who routinely put themselves in danger when they basically dangle – relying on ropes and buckles and other safety gear – to survey the condition and functionality of these structures.
“This is really a safety case for the oil and gas industry,” Whiteside said. “You don’t have to put a person at risk. (Drones) are safer and the data is better. The final piece is cost savings. (Drones) allow us to do things people were able to do before. They (the oil companies) won’t have to shut down operations and hang somebody from ropes to do the same work.”
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Those same duties and more can be done by battery-powered drones weighing less than 55 pounds and equipped with cameras, sensors and other data collection equipment.
Whiteside is the son of retired Stanislaus Superior Court Judge John Whiteside and former Modesto Mayor Carol Whiteside. After graduating from Downey, he went to college at Oregon State and then into the Navy, where he flew F-18s.
“When I left the Navy, I got into unmanned aircraft,” Whiteside said. “I help the Navy develop policies and procedures on how to use this technology.”
That included safety plans and things “you don’t think about until you start flying.”
He went on to become vice president of Evergreen Unmanned Systems, which deployed some employees on Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, where they operated drones for the military.
In 2011, he formed VDOS Global to offer inspection services using available technology. Now, after spending roughly a year working through the process, he can add the drones to it.
“(Drone) technology is developing faster than people realize,” he said. “Laws exist, but they were for manned aircraft. One of the reasons we were able to get (the exemption) is that we’re all pilots. Our focus based everything on manned aviation rules. That’s where we see the benefits. We’re taking the existing rules and applying them to unmanned aircraft instead of ignoring the last.”
Until VDOS Global received the exemption, it couldn’t contract for commercial work in the United States.
“A lot (of companies) have been doing it anyway,” he said. “We had to give up a lot of work because it wasn’t legal.”
Now it will be.
Drones have been around since World War II. The late Dan Donnelly of Oakdale, a Navy pilot during the war, was part of a top-secret unmanned aircraft program. From his trailing plane, he controlled twin-engine drones that were armed with 2,000-pound bombs and had television cameras in the nose cones. The drone camera transmitted a picture to monitors in the trailing planes – carrying Donnelly and his crewmen. They could release the bomb from the drone as it reached its target.
Also, a few years ago, aeronautical engineer Dawei Dong of Oakdale began building in his garage unmanned helicopters to be used as crop sprayers. I wrote about him in 2011 and the Los Angeles Times did so, too, a year later. By 2012, he’d built 50 machines but still hadn’t received the FAA’s blessing to fly them commercially.
And now, Amazon and other companies, including some news agencies, want to use drones.
The thought of government or private corporations using them to spy on private citizens is a huge concern. Whiteside said his unmanned aircraft will be used for the specific purpose of inspecting his customers’ facilities.
“And the reality is that cell phones are much more of a privacy risk than this ever will be,” he said. “If you’ve been around it (a drone), it’s pretty loud. There’s a buzzing sound. It’s not like the movies. You’re not going to sneak up on anybody with them. Yes, there are concerns about privacy, and those of us who are focused on doing it properly are taking that seriously.”
There is business to be had, he said.
“In the Gulf of Mexico alone, there are 3,500 inspection sites,” Whiteside said. “Inland, there are 40,000 potential inspection sites in the U.S.”
That latter number doesn’t include power towers. Whiteside said he expects to be launching drones at the oil rigs by the spring.
“We’re shooting for April for our first customer, Shell Oil,” he said.
Indeed, his business is about to take off via remote control.