Walla Walla County now has an air force, albeit an unmanned one.

A drone aircraft, or unmanned aerial vehicle, is now in the Public Works Department inventory. The black UAV was in the skies Friday morning performing an aerial survey of Whitman Drive for a planned bike-pedestrian pathway.

County Commissioners Todd Kimball and Jim Johnson were on hand to observe the new technology, bought in April from RDO Integrated Controls of Pasco.

The company was the lowest two bidders with an offer of $29,058.25, which included the drone and flight planning and image mapping software needed to process data to create a digital surface model and imagery. The contract also included on-site training from the vendor and one year of technical support.

Seth Walker, currently the only Public Works Department employee licensed to operate the drone, said a fully-charged battery can keep the aircraft flying for about 54 minutes under ideal conditions.

Federal Aviation Administration rules limit the maximum altitude of 400 feet, although on Friday’s flight the vehicle stayed at 250 feet.

Constructed mostly of what Walker said was “high-tech Styrofoam,” the lightweight aircraft with roughly a 5-foot wingspan is easily hand-launched. On Friday morning Commissioner Johnson did the honors, successfully sending the drone into the air on his first try.

As the drone flies along a programmed route, it sends its data and photos by a radio link back to a computer, which also displays where the craft is at any point during its task. When finished, or running low on power, the UAV returns to its starting point and softly belly-lands almost exactly where it was launched.

Although the purchase price may seem costly compared with the hobbyist models being widely sold, the computer hardware and software that accompany the UAV make it well worth the money, said Public Works Director Randy Glaeser.

“It’s huge,” he said. The mapping and survey data delivered by the drone in about one hour of flight time would take a traditional, ground-bound surveying team about three to five weeks to accomplish.

In addition to surveying, the UAV will also be used for general aerial photography, project inspection and many other tasks.