NOAA’s operations on the Washington coast this summer are part of a two-year project to evaluate the costs and benefits of unmanned aircraft. “We think it’s going to save us money and have much less impact on the environment,” said coordinator Todd Jacobs.
The craft seem particularly promising for hard-to-reach places and jobs that are tedious or dangerous, and can be operated for about a tenth the cost of a manned helicopter, he said.
Federal biologists survey seabirds on the Washington coast every year, mostly by helicopter, said Sue Thomas, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But several survey crews have died in accidents across the country.
In the cabin of the research boat just after the Puma took wing, Thomas watched video from the camera mounted on the little plane’s belly.
“These are all common murres,” she said, pointing to tight-packed clusters of birds nesting on top of a small island. The noise of a chopper can spook wildlife, Thomas added, but the seabirds seemed oblivious to the silent observer circling overhead.
The biggest obstacles to wider scientific use of drones are the cost and cumbersome regulations, Vagners said.
The price of off-the-shelf aircraft ranges from $10,000 to $350,000 or more, but is dropping rapidly. The Army spent $250,000 each for the fixed-wing AeroVironment Ravens it donated to the Department of the Interior. Similar planes now cost about $20,000, Hutt estimated.
That’s still a lot of money for many scientists. “Working with drones isn’t nearly as cheap or easy as I thought it would be,” said University of Washington environmental engineer Jessica Lundquist, who plans to experiment with small aircraft for avalanche control and snowpack monitoring in the Cascade Mountains.
Most of the craft require two trained operators. And getting approval to fly from the Federal Aviation Administration can take six months to a year. “It has been such a niche industry,” Lundquist said. “I think there’s a ton of potential, but it’s not as far along as you would think.”