Today’s small drones aren’t the perfect spying machines many people envision, said Kristi Morgansen, a UW engineer working to make the aircraft more agile and maneuverable. Most cameras used for scientific research have a narrow field of view, and the unmanned systems don’t do a good job of searching wide swaths of terrain for small targets.
Improvements are inevitable, though.
“People are very understandably protective of their privacy,” Morgansen said. “But somebody is going to develop this technology, and if the U.S. doesn’t keep up, that’s going to be a real problem.”
The use of drones for science represents a return to the field’s roots. Many of the early craft were designed to take weather readings and collect atmospheric data. Vagners was part of a team that in 1998 orchestrated the first trans-Atlantic crossing by an aerial drone.
But the military quickly recognized the potential, and has dominated research and development for more than a decade.
Now, the industry is seeking to shed its fearsome image and head off PR disasters over privacy. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the largest industry group, is so eager to promote scientific applications that it sent two staffers to the Washington coast, partly to drum up media coverage of NOAA’s work.
There’s a lot of money at stake. The Teal Group, an aerospace research firm, estimates that global spending on drones will total $89 billion over the next decade. AUVSI calculates that Washington state could gain 10,000 drone-related jobs by 2025, and the state is competing to be one of six drone testing and research centers designated by the FAA.
Most researchers working with drones are convinced they will soon be just another research tool. Jacobs and his crew are already laying plans to return to Washington next summer.