Still, creating guidelines for operating UAVs is going slowly, and that frustrates plenty of people. “The FAA wants us to show these things are safe, but they make it difficult to fly them to collect the information needed to prove they are safe,” says Massood Towhidnejad, a professor of computer and software engineering at Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who studies potential UAV applications. “Look, I agree with some of the [FAA] restrictions. But I don’t agree with others. We all agree with the FAA’s position that safety of the public should be the highest priority in any decision they make, and it’s unrealistic to assume [the FAA] should allow UAV systems to fly over any area that could result in human loss or injuries, or property damage. However, if the request is for a flight test over an area where’s there’s almost no chance of danger to humans or property—in the middle of the ocean, say, or over a desert—there’s still a good chance the FAA won’t approve the request. It’s obvious that the expected damage generated from the crash of a Predator is much higher than a small six-foot-wingspan UAV. And yet the FAA allows hobbyists to fly remote-controlled model aircraft very close to—or even in—cities, but they don’t allow a UAV of the same size to fly the same areas. If we could get more UAVs flying, they could play a major role in society.”
Another Embry-Riddle professor, Richard Stansbury, who specializes in robotics, sees fleets of larger UAVs eventually providing delivery services for UPS, FedEx, and other air freight companies. “It just makes sense to have [UAVs] do that,” he says.
The day after he and Elson Shields flew their UAVs through a cloud of potato blight, David Schmale returned to the field to test his autonomous UAVs. Three of them took off and began to pirouette through the sky, flying precisely and gracefully, learning to work together to track a pest that could do tremendous damage. It’s anyone’s guess how much else they could track.
Douglas Gantenbein can think of about a million uses for civilian UAVs.