Drones bring new perspective to growing business

Posted 12/9/21

Spend an hour with Levi Clatterbuck chatting about using a drone to check the status of your fence line, and you will end up listening to him make the connections from your fence line to drone sensors to artificial intelligence.

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Drones bring new perspective to growing business

An array of drones used by Clatterbuck.
An array of drones used by Clatterbuck.
(Monitor photo by John Arbter)

Spend an hour with Levi Clatterbuck chatting about using a drone to check the status of your fence line, and you will end up listening to him make the connections from your fence line to drone sensors to artificial intelligence.

Clatterbuck operates Bear Country Drone Service. The family-owned company recently opened an office in Tyler, adding to the original location in Ronan, Mont. 

One can equate the use of drones over the past decade to the effect that computers had on the generation of the 1990s. They have, no doubt, fundamentally altered how people monitor the physical world and how they exploit the three dimensions. 

The uses for drones today are practically endless. If a task requires a human being to go and view or measure something, then it is a candidate for drone use. 

“The drone is simply the vehicle,” Clatterbuck offered, “It is the sensor which acquires the data.”

For those who have not handled drones, it may be surprising to note how remarkably light they are. Every ounce spared in the frame and propellers is an ounce of added sensor weight which can be carried. 

Those sensors may range from gimbal-mounted high definition cameras to forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems. As modernity has exhibited, once new technologies have become successful, they are immediately reduced in size, if not miniaturized. This process makes practically any technology a candidate to be carried airborne by a drone. 

“What makes a drone special is that it can easily place the sensor in a position which is very difficult, very costly or impossible for a man to reach,” stated Clatterbuck.

Listening to the story of founding Bear Country Drone Service clearly illustrates this point.

Clatterbuck, a professional audio engineer, made his initial drone flights while doing cinematography in the amazingly-beautiful terrain of his hometown in northwest Montana. He admits that as exhilarating as piloting a drone is, it was the technological side of the process which really captivated him.

Those initial flight successes, both procedurally and by producing the desired cinematography, led to more and more diverse requests.

“I have done a lot of real estate videography, have searched for lost cattle and helped identify possible sources of ground water,” Clatterbuck said.

Simultaneously to those initial flights, Clatterbuck pursued a professional remote pilot license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and secured that licensure in 2017. That year, he and his mother, Lori Mikesell, launched Bear Country Drone Service.

Clatterbuck explained that the remote pilot license is a commercial license to operate drones. Many of the qualification standards are the same as those required of any commercial pilot. The requirements, Clatterbuck noted, were strict, and the responsibilities as well as the accountability stringent.

The flying is a joy, Clatterbuck stated, but can be a challenge due to the work environment. At a job site inspecting a cellular tower outside of Las Vegas, Nev., heavy electro-magnetic interference sent the drone out-of-control. Clatterbuck was able to regain control by quickly disabling the GPS-sourced navigational system. 

“You have to know how to manually fly the craft,” he explained, “Electronics are always vulnerable.”

Mikesell had relocated to East Texas in 1998 while she was doing disaster relief work. The location allowed her easy access to the Gulf Coast. Now a public insurance adjuster with her own practice in Tyler, Mikesell has been a resident of Golden since 1998. 

It is for that reason that local residents often sight Clatterbuck’s truck, with its distinctive advertising, as he visits his mother and business partner, Lori.

The connection to disaster relief afforded Clatterbuck experience collecting data following catastrophic events such as Hurricane Ida. It also provided experience in interacting with federal and state authorities. 

As his reputation for quality work and high professional standards spread, the request for services has kept the calendar full. In addition to the more standard missions of thermometric inspections and aerial photography, the drone service has expanded to provide volumetric measurements and 3D modeling.

Examples of such work have been documenting the dimensions of large, historic buildings and measuring the volume of large pyramids of aggregate for construction and mining concerns.

Some of the 3D modeling is so accurate that the imagery becomes artistic in and of itself. An image of a historic stone horse barn provided on the Bear Country website is an example of this phenomenon. 

Recently, Bear Country added a general counsel to the firm, Sten Langsjoen. The addition of Langsjoen has been timely as the company has provided crime scene surveillance and measurement for two capital felony cases.

Like all systems, drones have their shortcomings. Clatterbuck called out two, one physical and one geostrategic. 

The first concern is battery life. All drones are presently limited in fly time by their battery efficiency. The limited flight time – approximately 20-30 minutes for a mid-sized drone – can create mission limitations. It also requires exhaustive planning to maximize time over the target area.

One of the largest drone manufacturers, known as DJI, is officially the Shenzhen Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) Sciences and Technologies Ltd. of Shenzhen, China. Having a Chinese drone manufacturer as a major player in the U.S. has some people concerned about vehicle security.

Clatterbuck described that a new federal law mandating remote identification of all drones will go into effect in 2023. Although most of the monitoring associated with this law’s implementation has not yet been decided, the law will in effect create a license plate for each drone. This measure should go a long way in alleviating some security concerns with respect to DJI drones. 

While it is possible to go to any number of box stores and purchase a small drone, Clatterbuck advised that everyone should know even the smallest of drones must be registered. This registration is done at purchase and is used to fingerprint a drone being flown in violation of state or federal law. 

Recreational use of drones does not exempt the pilot from abiding by all statutes. These restrictions include, for instance, flying during daylight hours only and not flying over people.

The commercial use of drones is a tidal wave which cannot be turned back. The monetary savings associated with remote measurements is significant. 

Clatterbuck compares it to the emergence of smartphones.

“They were called smartphones for a reason, because they are artificial intelligence devices,” he said. “Drones, or data acquisition, will be the next industrial and technological revolution.”

And, if in need to check that fence line, give him a call. As he explained, “Tell me what information you are trying to obtain, and I will figure out how to get it.”