Drones Over America Are Working For … Hippie Scientists?

By Mo Mozuch on August 20, 2012 6:30 PM EDT

photo: AAI Corp.
photo: AAI Corp.

Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a drone! It's a drone over America! It's a massive government conspiracy! Not quite.  

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Isaac Newton said for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is certainly true in the case of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, more colloquially, drones. The majority of people associate "drone" with "death machine" and, for the most part, that's correct. UAV drones have been part of some high profile military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are proving their effectiveness as a combat tool that keeps soldiers out of harm's way.

Killing terrorists - action. Opposite reaction: hippies have them.

Ok, perhaps hippie is too strong a word. A more appropriate term could be "scientist" or "conservationist."  Whatever the term, the fact remains that drones are now being used for more than destroying terrorists' living room furniture. They are being utilized by scientists and researchers the world over for their versatility and cost-effectiveness in monitoring everything from orangutans in Indonesia to aquatic plants in Florida to bird habitats in Texas.  Drones over America aren't spying on us, they're protecting our wildlife.

Conservation drone pioneer, Lian Pin Koh of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, told sci-techtoday.com that the idea came to him after another sweaty, jungle slog in Sabah, Malaysia, hauling heavy equipment for his field work.

"I told my assistant, who happened to be my wife, 'How wonderful it would be if we could fly over that area rather than walk there again tomorrow,'" recalled Koh, an expert on tropical deforestation and model plane hobbyist. Koh works on building cheaper drones for organizations and universitites that are not as sophisticated as the high-tech drones the government uses for military operations.

Texas State University is one such organization. It recently received FAA approval to fly drones over American soil. The River Systems Institute at Texas State received a $260,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to evaluate the use of drones instead of manned flight operations. Like drones in combat, it is safer to fly a drone in a low-altitude environment to make ecological observations. James Tennant, chief UAV pilot at the River Systems Institute, believes the drones are a better solution than manned flights.

"Sometimes it's a bit nerve racking because the airplane is very small, and when you have a small airplane it's highly affected by winds and other environmental factors," Tennant told the University Star.

The upside to drones isn't just in keeping researchers out of the air. Keeping them off the ground can also be a huge asset to cash-strapped conservation groups. Koh's drones are being used by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program to track where the primates live, and which regions of their habitat are under assault by deforestation. Koh's drones cost about $2,000 to build. Conventional orangutan surveys cost upwards of $250,000 and are time-consuming affairs that involve lots of logistics and even helicopters.

There's nothing sinister about the implications of a drone being used to conduct wildlife research. In fact, drone technology could eventually become as commonplace as, say, getting in an airplane. Mary "Missy" Cummings, an automation expert at MIT, told Smithsonian Magazine that some airports have unmanned take-offs and landings of certain Boeing and Airbus jets. She predicts that unmanned cargo planes will be the industry standard within the next decade, with passenger jets becoming unmanned shortly afterwards.

So it looks like the drones in America are not interested in watching you, just the stuff that lives in your backyard.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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