NORTON — A low hum filled Chris Starnes’ fenced-in backyard as he readied a bright white drone for flight last Wednesday. As the humming grew louder, excitement built within Starnes’ two German Shepherds, Lucie and Maggie.
Barking furiously, Lucie bounded off the deck and into the yard and then dashed back to the deck, giving Starnes an expectant stare. Both dogs love chasing the aerial gadget, he explained. This enthusiasm was evident as Starnes whipped the drone back and forth across the yard and two ecstatic dogs gave chase.
Starnes’ interest in drones goes beyond having a high-tech toy for his dogs or spinning it through the skies above Norton for recreational enjoyment. Instead, the aviation aficionado and pilot hopes to transform his newfound passion into a public service.
At his home last week, Starnes discussed his ongoing work to build a drone to assist first responders. The idea for this pursuit materialized last winter, but Starnes’ passion for all things aviation began decades ago.
The Wise County native in high school helped clean a small airplane owned by a friend’s father, which fueled a desire to learn to fly. He did just that upon returning to the area to practice medicine years later.
Following graduation from Clinch Valley College, Starnes, 39, attended medical school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and then an internal medicine residency at the University of South Carolina before he returned home to practice. His inspiration for becoming a pilot also stemmed, in part, from Starnes’ desire to shorten his weekend commutes to visit now-wife, Autumn, in Cleveland, Ohio, where she was completing her medical residency. The couple now runs Autumn’s Norton dermatology practice, Cutting Edge.
These Cleveland flights halted, though, when Starnes was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He underwent a bone marrow transplant in 2009 and remained in remission for almost five years. The leukemia returned in 2013, however, with a tumor pressing on Starnes’ spinal cord. That injury left him a recovering paraplegic and required both his legs to be amputated below the knee. The illness forced him to stop practicing medicine and though he stays busy managing his wife’s practice — he is also a Federal Aviation Administration certified medical examiner — Starnes said he needed something he could own. About a year and a half ago, he found this niche in drones.
SEARCH AND RESCUE
Starnes’ plans to develop a search and rescue drone received a much-needed boost via the recent receipt of his Federal Aviation Administration Section 333 exemption. Until federal regulations for operating small, unmanned aircraft systems are finalized, the FAA has been granting exemptions to use these systems for commercial purposes. So far, the FAA has issued 1,813 exemptions, according to its website.
The application process is lengthy, and Starnes said it took him two or three weeks to prepare his application. The FAA also has a 120-day wait period before it even reviews applications. The 333 exemption lasts for two years, and Starnes said the authority allows him to use three of his drones, including one store-bought and two self-built models. One of these self-built models carries a one-hour battery life and the ability to fly almost 12-and-a-half miles. It can also be programmed to perform autonomous flight.
Starnes has discussed and tested his first responder drone idea with the Black Diamond Search and Rescue crew. He’s hoping he might be able to assist on missions now that’s he finally received a FAA exemption.
Using drones for search and rescue missions can be beneficial, though Starnes admitted it’s not without challenge. The Civil Air Patrol, which assists search and rescue missions from the air, has certain limitations that drones might be able to satisfy, he noted. CAP crews, for example, cannot fly too low or in poor weather conditions. By comparison, a drone can search at much lower altitudes, though one challenge involves navigating the tree canopy where leaves might obstruct its ability to capture quality images. Starnes is exploring methods for installing a thermal imaging camera that could assist, particularly with night searches. Launching a drone can also be done fairly rapidly, and potentially in poor weather. Since Starnes’ drone can also fly autonomously, first responders could define a grid they want searched and then program a drone to fly and take images at defined waypoints inside that grid.
Starnes said drones could also assist police departments in assessing accident scenes before first responders can arrive, for example, to see what personnel and equipment might be needed. They could also aid fire departments in better pinpointing where a fire is burning, especially in larger buildings, such as skyscrapers.
Starnes said this venture is not one he began with hopes of making money. Instead, it’s a way to give back to his community. Most rescue groups don’t receive ample funding, and Starnes said buying a drone and all its needed bells and whistles is expensive.
To cover production costs, Starnes has launched an online store that sells drones and drone parts that he imports from overseas. It cost about $10,000 to develop the retail business, but if someone wants to purchase a drone simply to take photographs and make money, Starnes said it’s probably a $2,000 to $3,000 investment.
He also believes there is a demand for commercial drone applications, which might include a real estate company shooting photos of its properties or using thermal imaging to assist a farmer in counting his cattle or to study a disease impacting an agricultural crop.
Starnes’ pursuit joins several recent drone-centered initiatives that have occurred in Wise County. The Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded the county a $50,000 grant to launch a workforce training center focused on developing drone technology for coal mining operations. That venture built upon several other events, including drone flight demonstrations at last year’s Aerospace Days, drone competitions at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in February and at the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair in June, drone-delivered medicine at July’s Remote Area Medical outreach in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Flirtey Inc., and the August gathering of unmanned aerial systems’ enthusiasts at Lonesome Pine Regional Airport. Starnes said he is hopeful the county can become a hub for these types of activities. He believes doing so is possible, especially if the county can orchestrate drone operator training opportunities, which will likely be needed once the FAA finalizes its regulations for flying certain drones.
The challenge of regulating drones is only beginning, though. Starnes said, for example, he’s had difficulty finding an insurance policy below $5,000 for operating a commercial-based drone venture. Once insurance companies figure out this risk, Starnes thinks people will be required to achieve some type of certification. If this training could occur at a local institution, such as Mountain Empire Community College, that would be a great opportunity for the area, he said. The college held its first unmanned aerial vehicles course this past summer and has since begun a second course offering.
Asked whether the drone hype is a fad or has staying power, Starnes said he thinks drones will play some role in future commercial pursuits. He finds it far-fetched, however, that Amazon will one day deliver packages to people’s homes via drone or that there will be airspace dedicated solely to drone flights. “I think they (drones) will be a small part of the future and that they’re here to stay as a small part,” he said.