Scientists turn weapons into tools

The U.S. military uses small, remote-controlled airplanes for combat and spying. These are called uninhabited aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

But Frank Cutler and his colleagues see a whole new use for these aircraft.

Frank Cutler: . . . we’re exploring the use of UAVs, trying to heavily leverage what the Department of Defense has invested in them, and what the Federal Aviation is investing in them . . . to see if we can’t use these as yet another tool to take science instruments aloft to study our Earth, mainly the atmosphere . . . and Earth’s geology.

Cutler, who manages what’s called the Earth Science Capabilities Demonstration Project, says one advantage to UAVs is they can fly along specific paths and collect air samples directly. That means there are a lot of things you could do with these craft.

You could, for example, send a UAV into a plume of air pollution coming from a factory to track where the pollution goes and study how it changes. Weather balloons can also collect air samples, but they drift wherever the wind carries them.

In some situations, small, unpiloted aircraft may be a better tool for Earth science research than satellites, weather balloons or piloted aircraft.

Some UAVs can fly for more than a day without refueling, while piloted aircraft usually can only fly a few hours at a time. And UAV’s can work in dangerous environments — such as in or around hurricanes — without risking pilots’ lives.

In early 2005, Cutler’s team demonstrated the use of the Altair UAV to measure the chemical composition of the atmosphere, including water vapor, ozone, halocarbons and nitrous oxide. It also collected ocean color data and imaged Earth’s surface.

In mid-2006, Cutler’s team sent an uninhabited aircraft on a tour across the western U.S. The goal was to identify and monitor wildfires with an infrared sensor. A fleet of UAVs may someday provide round the clock wildfire monitoring to save lives and homes.

What you have in your mind?