Like many scientists, Schmale is looking forward to the time when he's able to fly drones with fewer restrictions.
That day may be a few years off. There's still an uncomfortable relationship between the researchers and do-it-yourselfers who want to fly drones on demand, and the civilian aviation industry and its regulators who worry about mixing remote-control and human-piloted aircraft.
UAV developers also say they face a public relations problem. When people hear the word "drone," most think of the foreboding Predator aircraft that fires missiles on terrorist camps, according to Paul McDuffee, vice president of government relations at Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary that makes UAVs.
Firing weapons "is just one aspect of the capabilities of these systems," said McDuffee.
Insitu's ScanEagle UAV, which is launched by a catapult, can be used for both military surveillance missions and environmental monitoring. The vehicle is about 4 1/2 feet long, with a wingspan of 10 feet. It has been used to study migration of wildlife in Alaska, floods in North Dakota and the spread of invasive weeds in Australia.
"We have a lot of educating to do as an industry to make sure that people know that these things do not pose a threat or any kind of additional imposition relative to privacy," McDuffee said.
Drones are an aviation technology — like metal fuselages, computerized flight controls and jet engines — that was developed by the military and that then migrated to commercial aviation. UAVs date back to the 19th century, and increasingly sophisticated models have been used in many conflicts since — most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have been used for both intelligence-gathering and airstrikes.
Today, advances in battery technology, GPS navigation and computer software, and lightweight composite materials are making UAVs more affordable and flexible for scientific missions. Still, because of federal restrictions and public unease, it's unlikely that we'll soon see the skies above the United States filled with patrolling drones. For now, experts say, UAV manufacturers will find more opportunities to fly their drones in remote parts of the world.