Drones on the Plateau: both functional and fun

Drones are all the rage because they are both functional and fun – functional for the workings of towns and fun for outdoor enthusiasts.

Pictured below is footage from freestyle drone pilot Kevin Dickey at Laurel Knob. Editor’s Note: The second cliff drop is incredible.

In Highlands and Cashiers, drones are used in a variety of ways – search and rescue, illuminating nighttime crash scenes, mapping, collecting data to improve agriculture, video footage of mountaintop homes for use in the real-estate market, or purely for recreation.

Search and Rescue

Highlands Fire and Rescue Chief Ryan Gearhart said drones are useful in a variety of situations.

“In one instance we had some guys who were trapped up on a rock by Shortoff (Road), we were able to fly up there, see any medical issues they had, and deploy to that area,” he said. “If there’s a forest fire you can get a good size of the fire with a flyover. When you pull up in a truck, you only see one dimension. Drones definitely have a place here.”

Town MIS/GIS Director Matt Shuler said plans are in the works to have several members of HFR licensed to pilot a drone in case one or more of those people licensed are out of town. Until recently, Town staff used a $1,500 drone purchased over a year ago. That’s no longer the case as the Town just spent $32K on a bigger and better drone.

Town of Highlands IT Director Matt Schuler assembles the town’s new $32K drone. The red sack on top is a parachute. The Matrice drone is equipped with high-res, thermal and zoom cameras.

So why the jump in cost of over $30K? Its capabilities. The new drone, a Matrice, has three cameras mounted on its frame — a high-resolution camera, a zoom camera, and a thermal camera. The thermal camera can see living objects in the dark due to the object’s heat signature. The zoom camera is used to determine if the thermal signature is a stranded hiker or a deer.

“The biggest reason we did this was for those guys (HFR),” said Shuler. “Having the thermal camera and light kits will help out Police and Fire departments a lot.”

The Matrice can also connect to multiple controllers and screens simultaneously so the pilot can fly the drone on one screen and emergency personnel can look at another screen that shows what the cameras scouring the area for the victims are pointed at.

The Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad recently used a drone in coordination with ground crews to search for a plane that went down off Horse Cove Road as well as search for missing hikers.


Last year the Town of Highlands first used a drone to map the town limits to monitor changes and collect other data. Aerial imagery used to be done by satellites at low resolution, meaning one pixel equaled 30 meters (a building would appear as a block in the image). However, a pixel now represents a half inch using drones.

The Town’s first Phantom drone purchased over a year ago that was recently used to map town limits. What once was done by satellites at very low resolution is now being done using drones producing much better image quality.

“With our first drone we really pushed it to the limits,” said Town MIS/GIS Field Specialist Carlton Wheatley. “Not in-flight time but in processing all the images we took. It’s important to have the most curate map possible for utilities. For example, when water crews get called out to fix something, they need to know what they’re working with.”


Blue Ridge Early College Agriculture Teacher Nick Pressler said a program using drones is being developed to collect data to improve plant health. The program is called Emerging Technologies in Agriculture and will be offered in Spring 2020.

“If you look at agriculture as a whole, technology is driving it,” said Pressler. “Unmanned tractors, UAV’s [unmanned aerial vehicles] using GPS, GIS, water content, soil moisture, etc. It’s no longer putting stuff in the ground and watching it grow,”

Pressler added drones can collect data over much larger areas of land than on foot or ground-based transportation. BREC already has four drones but has its eyes on a newer one once the program is up and running.


Enter drone pilots Kevin Dickey and Dalton Kinsey, both of Cashiers, NC. They fly custom-built drones using a controller and first-person view (FPV) goggles to see what the drone sees as it dives 1,200 feet down a cliff face.

From left are freestyle-drone pilots Dalton Kinsey and Kevin Dickey droning at Ravenel Park on Sunset Rock. Both pilots are wearing first-person view goggles viewing video from Dickey’s drone.

They fly drones purely for the fun of the hobby after building the perfect aircraft based on preference and practicing their stunts and tricks across the Plateau. They described building their drones as a gamer builds a computer rig.

“Getting the components together for a freestyle drone is fairly in depth,” said Kinsey. “It is all about personal preference. You can go for a long-range cinematic build or you can build a short flying ‘fun to play’ with drone. Some of the crazy tricks are cool to watch but my favorite thing is diving big cliffs. And we have plenty of those around this area.”

Pictured below is footage from freestyle drone pilot Dalton Kinsey at the Highlands Biological Station currently undergoing renovations. Read more about the project HERE.

But piloting a drone designed for stunts is difficult.

“Most drones are slower and self-leveling, the ones we fly are acrobatic,” said Dickey. “We can go inverted, do flips and rolls, and change direction and speed in the blink of an eye. It’s like playing video games in the real world and creating any playground landscape you want.”

Custom-built freestyle drones tend to be built using the most powerful components available. Parts don’t match, things are not perfectly boxed up in appropriate compartments, don’t even think about a color scheme, and the end result of the build may not be what’s expected; but these machines carry incredible power allowing for speed, height, flight-time, distance, and maneuverability.

Droning off into the sunset on Sunset Rock in Highlands, N.C.

Article and Photos by Brian O’Shea
Follow us on Instagram: @plateaudailynews
Like us on Facebook HERE
Advertise click HERE

Leave a Reply