Drones are Ready for Takeoff

Will unmanned aerial vehicles—drones—soon take civilian passengers on pilotless flights?

Engineer Tad McGeer, at his company's headquarters near Bingen, Washington, played a key role in getting the civilian drone industry off the ground. (Robbie McClaran)
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In an alley between two vineyards on his farm, von Flotow watches staffers use a catapult launcher to fire a 150-pound hunk of rusting steel up a zip line. They’re testing brake systems to stop the hunk of steel before it comes slamming back down. They need to get the braking right because this is how they will soon test a new multimillion-dollar military drone packed with pricey electronics.

To a casual observer, it looks like boys on the farm having fun. But they’re working on a joint Navy and Marine contract recently won by Insitu, and, von Flotow says, it is complicating their lives. Instead of getting an idea and trying it out the same afternoon with a cordless drill and some plywood, “we have to wait for hundreds of guys in Maryland to tell us what to do,” he says. And instead of working for the fun of it, they must now account for their time in ten-minute increments. What they used to do for a dime can end up costing a dollar.

Over at Aerovel, meanwhile, McGeer is back where he started 20 years ago, thinking about the weather. What he has in mind is a drone that could take off from the West Coast, land itself on a ship in Hawaii to refuel without human assistance, then take off and fly home again, over and over, continuously sending back low-altitude weather data. It is a typically quixotic project. The lack of good storm-intensity forecasts has huge economic costs, but filling that need won’t automatically generate big profits because the economic benefits are too widely diffused.

McGeer wants to accomplish the new mission with a drone that can take off and land vertically, eliminating launchers and skyhooks. Vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL, is “historical snake oil in the aeronautical industry,” he admits. For decades, science magazines have conjured up futuristic visions of such vehicles taking off from people’s driveways, but the trade-offs required to get both the hovering ability of a helicopter and the forward speed of a fixed-wing aircraft have grounded most such aspirations. McGeer thinks he has a better idea, and new technology to make it happen.

The test drone stands on the driveway outside his garage, its engine roaring. It’s just a stripped-down tube, capable only of takeoffs and landings, not horizontal flight. For now, the wings are just a stick, like a scarecrow’s arms. Lately, the engine has been dying mysteriously after two or three hours. A staffer has put in an order for a carburetor rebuild kit, but it will take a day or two to arrive. “Isn’t it just a chain saw carburetor?” McGeer asks. It starts to rain, which is a problem because they haven’t sealed up the avionics yet. McGeer is undaunted. The “test-test-test, break, fix, test-test” mantra is his life.

Better to come back another day, he suggests. He isn’t making any promises. But it might just fly.

Richard Conniff is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian. Robbie McClaran, who photographed oncologist Brian Druker for the magazine’s May issue, is based in Portland, Oregon.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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