WINCHESTER — You may see some unusual activity in the skies above Winchester next week as the city tests the capabilities of aerial drones.
Drones are remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft used for purposes ranging from recreation to warfare. Winchester’s Emergency Management Department owns five of the devices and has 10 trained pilots that have used them for things like searching for hot spots during structure fires.
Starting Monday, the city will be conducting tests to further explore the potential uses of drones. Specifically, the tests will determine the feasibility of using drones to:
Collect data from water meters
Inspect road conditions
Detect energy inefficiencies in buildings
Ensure city maps are accurate and up to date
Check the health of municipal trees
According to a media release from Rouss City Hall, next week’s tests will be conducted by the Virginia Beach-based company DroneUp in partnership with city staff and the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), the nonprofit operations arm of the Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority.
“… the city hopes to enhance its drone program and take full advantage of the opportunities drones can provide in improving efficiency of local government operations,” Scott Kensinger, Winchester’s emergency management coordinator and manager of the city’s drone program, said in the release.
Winchester is one of several localities in Virginia that have been approached by CIT to possibly become a “smart city,” which, according to the CIT, are municipalities that utilize sustainable and resilient technologies to collect data and automate processes.
Winchester began testing “smart city” technology during Tropical Storm Ida, the release states. Flood sensors were installed in Town Run and Abrams Creek to collect flooding information to be added to a statewide data dashboard that monitors water flow rates.
“If Winchester continues to grow its technology opportunities, we could potentially attract a new type of commerce and manufacturing to our city and provide educational opportunities for local students,” Winchester Development Services Director Shawn Hershberger said in the release.
John S. Eberhardt III of Winchester agrees, especially when it comes to the potential uses of drones. The chief technology officer at ATA LLC, a Vienna-based company that uses technology to help clients streamline operations, said he could envision a time where drones are commonplace in Winchester, doing things such as delivering prescriptions and groceries to the homes of people with mobility issues.
The key, Eberhardt said, is to map the airspace above Winchester so drone operators would know where to fly safely. Creating flight maps could, in turn, attract companies that manufacture drones and provide support services for the devices, leading to high-paying jobs that won’t necessarily require a college degree.
On Wednesday, Eberhardt said, Rese Cleaver of DroneUp is scheduled to visit the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center at 536 Jefferson St. to speak with Winchester Public Schools officials about career possibilities associated with drone technology.
According to the city’s media release, Winchester is also working with Winchester Regional Airport and the Virginia Department of Aviation‘s Flight Information Exchange program to test the use of drones for commercial purposes while ensuring the safety of local airspace for both manned and unmanned operations.