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Consider it an attack of the drones — and pork is on the menu.
Feral pigs in America’s deep South are a major problem for farmers and civilians alike, with the porcine predators causing an estimated $1.5 billion annually in damage to crops and wildlife. Enter the Louisiana Hog Control, an extermination company launched in 2011 by a couple of engineers determined to make a dent in the thriving pig population. Using a radio-controlled airplane equipped with a thermal-imaging camera as a spotter and a hunter on the ground, Cy Brown estimates he and his partner, James Palmer, have killed roughly 300 wild pigs in the last six months alone.
“Obviously it’s not completely new technology, but some of the sensors and computing power has gotten to such a state to where it’s very easy to build these things, have them last a long time and for them to have a little bit of brains,” Brown said of the unmanned aircraft system that operates about 400 feet off the ground.
Now in his third season, Brown said he got the idea of strapping a high-end camera to a radio-controlled airplane from his intense interest in the hobby, particularly in a subset community that focuses on creating a first-person viewpoint using the miniature aircraft.
“The aircraft is certainly capable of going thousands of feet, but generally the working altitude is 400 feet,” Brown, 36, told FoxNews.com. “And it’s hard to say whether it will be business, but I know people who are making their living doing this.”
Anyone can recreate Brown’s system — the airplane and accompanying computing devices on the ground — for about $2,000, he said, not including the price of the thermal-imaging camera, which can cost upwards of $10,000 and beyond. And since he cannot legally charge people for flying the plane due to FAA regulations, Brown said he kills pigs for tips, often $25 per porker.
“The more you tip, the more we show up,” he said. “Whoever’s got the most pigs and the most money, that’s where we’ll be. Sometimes people pay us money just for showing up.”
Brown said usage of unmanned aircraft systems isn’t going anywhere and will further explode in coming years, particularly after Amazon.com’s announcement that it’s seeking to use the devices to get parcels weighing 5 pounds or less to customers in fewer than 30 minutes.
“Oh I’m certain of it,” he said of the looming drone explosion. “A lot of the wireless communication technology has kicked into high gear.”
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told “60 Minutes” that the so-called octocopters are being tested to have a range of about 10 miles, which could cover a significant portion of the U.S. population in urban areas. Bezos said the project — dubbed Prime Air — could become a working service in four or five years, but some skeptics have expressed serious doubts.
"It's fascinating as an idea and probably very hard to execute," Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, told The Associated Press. "If he could really deliver something you order within 30 minutes, he would rewrite the rules of online retail."
Ben Gielow, government relations manager of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said the industry is literally poised to take off. Drones are already being used domestically and internationally in myriad projects, including in search-and-rescue missions, narcotics interdiction operations by the U.S. Coast Guard and to survey hard-to-reach habitats within scientific research.
Internationally, the trade group said drones have already been used in a number of unorthodox ways, including to arrest a leader of Mexico’s infamous Los Zetas gang, to identify illegal fishermen in Australia and to monitor radiation at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.
“People think about using unmanned aircraft to complete tasks that are either too difficult, dangerous, dull or expensive to do traditionally,” Gielow told FoxNews.com. “This is really kind of the next big revolution of aviation and aerospace. You’re no longer constrained by protecting the pilot or passengers on board. You can fly further, faster, higher longer and also fly in areas that are too dangerous for typical aircraft to go, like over a forest fire or beneath a bridge.”