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.
Schmale has rigged his drone with a set of Petri dishes connected to extendable arms that open and close during the flight. The dishes hold a growth medium that captures the type of fungus spores he is studying.
But Schmale can't fly the plane wherever and whenever he wants. The FAA allows him to use a patch of sky above Virginia Tech's agricultural research farm near Blacksburg and another one above Fort Pickett, an Army National Guard base south of Richmond, Va. He has to file flight plans two days ahead of time.