Langford calls this craft the Centaur, a play on its half-human, half-robot makeup; a team of engineers at Aurora has been building it for the past decade. They hope it will someday fly scientific missions across Greenland, ferry passengers around the United States and perhaps even carry patients to the hospital when no human pilots are available.
“You use either a keyboard or mouse to set the heading, altitude and airspeed,” Langford explained.
The Centaur is one of several dozen nonmilitary UAVs, better known as drones, that have been taking to the skies in the past few years. Many have been developed by military aerospace contractors in the Washington area. The Federal Aviation Administration has granted permits to 46 federal, local or state agencies and universities to operate these vehicles, which go by such catchy names as Cobra, Kestrel, Sparrow and Skate.
Civilian drones can fly only under certain conditions. Most can’t land or take off from civilian airports or fly over populated areas. Models whose total weight is less than 55 pounds must remain within the operators’ sight and go no higher than 400 feet. But FAA officials say they expect the number of commercial and scientific UAVs to rise as the agency develops new rules to integrate drones into civilian airspace by 2015.
That’s good news to environmental researchers such as David Schmale, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s plant pathology department. Schmale and his colleagues are using drones to sample air currents in their study of a fungus that has been devastating crops and fruit orchards.
Flying a drone from the ground is cheaper than hiring a pilot and gassing up a private plane, according to Schmale, and that’s important for a plant scientist on a grant-funded budget. The drones that Schmale and his team use are made from balsa wood or fiberglass and are powered by an electric motor. The craft, with wingspans of five to eight feet, are available on the Internet for $1,000 to $10,000. Schmale and his graduate students purchased a simple drone online, learned how to fly it themselves, and then began adding additional scientific sensors.