It only weighs four pounds, it sounds like an angry hummingbird, is a veteran of the Iraq war and, for Huxley Professor Dr. David Wallin, its forty minute flight over the Skagit Valley on April 9 was the product of a year’s worth of jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
It’s called a “Raven RQ-11A” and it’s owned and operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. Wallin organized the flight as a part of his research on the elk populations of the Skagit Valley and the south fork of the Nooksack River.
The road that led to drones being flown over the Skagit Valley elk is a long and complicated one, reaching back to the early 1900s when the population was depleted to fewer than 200 animals. The population reached 1400-1500 animals by the 1970s and 80s, but habitat loss and increased hunting caused a dramatic dip in the population in the 90s, down to fewer than 300 animals. It has rebounded since, and Wallin estimates the current population to be between 1,200 and 1,500.
“Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the tribes have co-management responsibilities for that herd. Both have interests and responsibilities and they try to work together, but, as you might imagine, they have different priorities and different interests,” Wallin said.
Farmers also have a stake in the growth of the elk population. Many have spoken out in county council meetings and other venues about the damage that the elk do to their crops and have called on the state to either control the population or compensate them for their losses.
Wallin and his graduate students have been working on several projects involving the elk, including mitigating collisions with the animals on Highway 20.
“The bonehead simple question of how many elk are out there is more contentious then you might imagine. It’s not like the elk fill out a census form," Wallin said. 
Currently, WDFW tracks the elk population using helicopters during two flights within a week of each other each year.
“Based on those observations, the WDFW can do a population estimate,” Wallin said. “It’s a really cool protocol, but it’s expensive. The flights cost $20,000 per year.”
Enter the USGS Raven. The small, fixed-wing aircraft is equipped with GPS and a camera, allowing teams to program it to follow a set flight path and film the ground below. It would serve roughly the same purpose as the helicopter flights, but would allow observations to be much more frequent and much less expensive.
“Flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are cheap, and if they crash, nobody gets hurt,” Wallin said.
The drawback to using UAVs for research lies in the Federal Aviation Administration regulations that currently exist for the vehicles.
“The rules state that if you’re a hobbyist, you can do whatever you want to, almost. But if I want to fly exactly the same thing that’s owned by the university, as part of a job, then I’ve got to apply for a Certificate of Authorization,” Wallin said.
Obtaining the Certificate of Authorization meant Wallin had to go through the same health exam as a commercial airplane pilot and take the same exam as a private pilot.
“Even though it’s a royal pain, the huge advantage we have at the university is that is that because it’s really, really difficult for people to do this legally except as a hobbyist, then if we jump through all the hoops, we can start training people like you to get a head start, so that we’re getting a head start on everyone else who isn’t legally allowed to do this stuff just yet,” Willin said.
One student who is keenly aware of the university’s foray into the unmanned world is sophomore Max Romey, who went along with Wallin’s research group to observe the Raven in action. Romey has used unmanned vehicles for filmmaking and is currently working on building his own, as a hobbyist.
“It was really cool that he was willing to go through that amount of work, because I think it was really opening up a stuck door,” Romey said. “It’s going to take a lot of pushing but once it’s open, it’s going to be a great opportunity for students and filmmakers and there’s a lot of learning that’s going to go on with this.”
Wallin is already looking into opportunities for students like Romey to gain experience using this new technology. The Federal Aviation Administration is set to release updated regulations on the use of UAVs next month. The future of the Skagit Valley elk and the drone that flew above them is up in the air. Both are controversial, loved and feared.
“Drones are really just sweet, misunderstood creatures,” Romey said. Likely the same could be said of the elk.