Though the University of Washington is a hub for development of computer programs, gyroscopes and control systems for drones, most researchers there test their craft indoors only, because of the FAA restrictions.
Much of the burden will be lifted by 2015, when the FAA adopts national regulations for small drones. In the meantime, many researchers limit their outdoor operations to restricted military airspace, where it’s easier to get permission.
William Mell, of the Forest Service’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle, travels to a military reservation in Texas to experiment with fire-monitoring drones. His goal is to fine-tune the computer models firefighters use to predict the way blazes will spread.
Mell uses gas-powered aircraft that can stay aloft for several hours. The battery-powered Pumas NOAA tested on the Washington coast have a range of about 8 miles, and can fly for two hours at a stretch. Weighing in at 13 pounds, the Pumas can be disassembled and carried in a backpack.
The portability and stealth that appeals to wildlife biologists is part of what some people fear about drones. When Port Angeles resident Pearl Raines Hewett found out about the seabird surveys, she fired off an angry letter to her congressional representative. After so many instances of government snooping, like the National Security Agency combing through phone and Internet records, Hewett said she doesn’t trust scientists who say the images and data they collect will be used only for research.
Indeed, NOAA has experimented with the use of its drones for law enforcement, searching for illegal fishing operations off the coasts of Florida and California, Jacobs said. When the Puma flying near La Push filmed two people walking on the beach, he explained that all human images are erased from the video.
“It disturbs me that this is what my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to be living with,” Hewett said. “A Big Brother society that is watching you everywhere.”