Though some residents on the Olympic Peninsula were unhappy to have their turf invaded by tiny aircraft, the scientific use of drones hasn’t yet drawn the same type of privacy concerns that forced the Seattle Police Department to warehouse its unmanned aircraft. Several states, including Idaho and Montana, enacted restrictions this year on the use of drones for law enforcement or to spy on people.
“For things like surveying eagle nests and trumpeter swans and vegetative analysis, I would say 99 out of 100 people have supported what we’re doing,” said Mike Hutt, who manages 36 drones — one of the largest civilian fleets — for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of the Interior.
The USGS first experimented with drones during Mount St. Helens’ 2004 eruption. The small airplanes didn’t fare well in turbulent weather and the sensors weren’t as good as those on manned helicopters, said USGS volcanologist John Pallister, of the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash.
But the experiments proved it was possible to collect data from an erupting volcano with drones — something scientists did earlier this year in Costa Rica.
Since 2004, cameras, heat sensors and other instruments have shrunk dramatically while navigation and control systems have improved. Coupled with the development of smaller, more affordable vehicles, those advances are helping fuel a science rush, Hutt said.
Unmanned-aircraft manufacturers are also courting new customers as the U.S. pulls back from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Everybody is happy to sell you stuff,” said Juris Vagners, emeritus professor of aeronautics at the University of Washington.
Scientists and public agencies need to steer clear of the hype, consider public reaction and do the math to figure out whether unmanned aircraft are cheaper or better than traditional methods, he cautioned.
The Seattle Police Department’s failed attempt to integrate drones into its toolbox cost taxpayers $82,000.