One company seeking such opportunities is AAI, a Hunt Valley, Md., firm that builds long-duration military surveillance drones as well as a scientific UAV called the Aerosonde.
"It can go anywhere where it's dirty, foul and dangerous," said Mark Hender, general manager of AAI's Aerosonde unit.
The Aerosonde's specialty is long-duration flying on just a little gas — up to 26 hours with a small payload. Aerosonde flew into the eye of Hurricane Noel in 2007 on a NASA-sponsored mission. It's headed to Antarctica this fall with a team from the University of Colorado to help researchers understand how carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is being absorbed into the Southern Ocean.
For Aurora's Langford, the next step is figuring out how to get drones and planes to recognize each other, something called sense-and-avoid capability. Right now, each airplane carries a transponder that identifies its position in relation to all the others around it. Air traffic controllers manage the flow of these planes.
In fact, when he was testing the Centaur earlier this summer, Langford had to turn the controls back over to the human pilot in order to steer clear of another plane that was crossing their path. The Centaur received a transponder signal from the other airplane, warning of its speed and flight path, but under current rules, unmanned aerial vehicles are not allowed to maneuver autonomously to avoid other air traffic.
Researchers from NASA and the Swiss military are working on ways that drones can interact with planes in the sky and controllers on the ground.
In Afghanistan, remotely piloted U.S. drone helicopters have shuttled food and other cargo to front-line troops, but it may be a long time before drones take human passengers into the sky.