CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Remote-controlled drone aircraft are getting a bad reputation.Americans worry that police or the federal government might use reconnaissance drones to spy on them. Peaceniks fret that drones are being used to fire missiles at people or drop bombs on them.Wildlife officials have serious concerns about drones, too. They realize that remotely piloted aircraft could be used to scout for deer, bear and other big-game species, and that eventually some genius might figure out a way to fire guns accurately from them.In fact, members of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission are considering regulations that would prohibit drones from being used to hunt or scout for game.
Are folks in Colorado being alarmist?A recent article in The Economist seems to indicate they aren't. The article profiled an outfit called Louisiana Hog Control, a pest-eradication service that uses drones, thermal imaging technology, lasers and night-vision goggles to hunt and kill feral hogs at night.Here's how they do it. First, they send up a drone with a thermal-imaging camera. The camera sees the heat emanating from the hogs' bodies and directs a laser pointer toward the animals. On the ground, a shooter wearing night-vision goggles follows the laser to the hogs and kills them.According to the article, the company has bumped off 300 crop-destroying porkers in the past six months.There long have been concerns that hunters might one day be able to kill animals by remote control. While the aforementioned example doesn't live up to that description, it isn't far removed from it.It's not fair chase, that's for sure. Nor should it be, at least in this case. The employees of Louisiana Hog Control aren't hunters, they're exterminators getting rid of destructive animals, just as your friendly neighborhood termite-control agent gets rid of destructive insects.The fact remains, however, that similar technology could be used to track down and kill any number of big-game species, particularly those active at night. Colorado's Parks and Wildlife commissioners appear to realize that, and are working to stay a step ahead of the technology curve.The curve hasn't registered yet with West Virginia officials."It's not even on our radar screen," said Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. He added, however, that it's something agency officials might need to address sometime in the future."Anytime you are dealing with high-tech equipment, there's a question whether it's a legitimate way to harvest game, or if it falls on the other side of fair chase. It's our job to find the balance point."If we examine a new technology and see it as violating the spirit of fair chase, then we would draft regulations to deal with it."
Johansen said the Louisiana drones are examples of how the technology could be used for a beneficial purpose, to rid the countryside of destructive feral swine."But there's a big difference between animal control and a hunting situation," he added.Drones certainly have beneficial uses. In a hostage situation, for example, police might use small drones to figure out who the bad guys and the hostages are and where they're located.Remotely controlled aircraft using thermal imaging could even help wildlife officials determine how many deer are located on a given tract of land. Before drones were available, DNR officials used similar technology mounted on manned helicopters to see how many deer were present at Canaan Valley State Park. A drone survey would have been just as effective, and probably would have cost much less money.As Johansen said, the key appears to be finding the balancing point between drone use and misuse, and drawing the line right there.