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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“Aren’t we all amateurs?” he asks, his voice a low murmur that fades in and out like a distant radio station. “There are a lot of people doing what we do, tinkering in a garage.”

McGeer’s longtime business partner, Andy von Flotow, operates in similar fashion on a farm on the Hood River side of the gorge. But where McGeer tends to be cautious and constrained, von Flotow is about moving obstacles aside and getting business done. He has a gleeful farm boy bearing, with sun-bleached blue eyes and weather-reddened skin. He also has a high regard for calculations scratched on the back of an envelope.

In a pear orchard nearby, von Flotow points out a trailer insulated with five tons of hay. It houses a fan capable of blowing air at 80 miles an hour through a 1,500-foot length of white silage tubing stretched out over a hill. In a meadow on the other side, a cradle built on an old orchard crate is designed to hold a drone running its engine at full speed in the silent wind.

“This is my Mil-14 meadow,” von Flotow says, meaning that it meets military specifications for a sound-testing facility. (In addition to his partnership in Aerovel, von Flotow owns Hood Technology Corporation, which makes launchers, camera turrets and other military gear.) He uses the meadow in the dead of night to test different engine and muffler configurations. In springtime, the raucous calling of frogs in a nearby pond can pose a challenge. “So I phone the sheriff to tell them not to send the police and then I fire a shotgun twice.” That buys him 30 seconds of silence.

McGeer and von Flotow, both Canadians who earned doctorates in aeronautical engineering from Stanford University, have spent much of their careers as seat-of-the-pants inventors, solving problems fast and cheap. Their idea of engineering is making something for a dime that any fool can make for a dollar, and having fun doing it.

McGeer got started in drones working on one of the first civilian models, the Perseus, which made its maiden flight over the Mojave Desert in November 1991. The hole in the ozone layer was a hot issue then, and the idea was that Perseus would take sophisticated measurements of atmospheric chemistry at high altitudes over Antarctica. But McGeer soon split off to develop the Aerosonde, a drone with a ten-foot wingspan that could take routine weather measurements by moving autonomously up and down through the atmosphere. He named the company Insitu, Latin for “in place.” “It would not have been possible to conceive of the idea a few years earlier,” says McGeer, who could take advantage of newly miniaturized technologies, particularly lightweight receivers for the Global Positioning System (GPS).

By 1998, McGeer was regularly flying Aerosondes, often operating out of an old school bus von Flotow owned. But atmospheric research was a niche market at best, with few customers in sight. “Maybe it’s time for a stunt,” von Flotow suggested. He had in mind the first Atlantic crossing by an unmanned aircraft. “I didn’t want to do a stunt,” says McGeer. “I wanted to fix our problems. We needed to test-test-test, break, fix, test-test, but we didn’t have the money to do it.”

He lost four aircraft in 200 hours of flight that spring—an average of 50 hours between failures. But even at $25,000 apiece, his cost at the time, drones are meant to be expendable. McGeer figured that an Atlantic crossing would take about 25 hours, “and I said, ‘OK, so if we send four aircraft across the ocean, our chances that one will make it are better than 90 percent.’ ” A major defense contractor in San Diego was also planning the first Atlantic crossing, with a drone (and a budget) the size of a 737. The Los Angeles Times billed it as a David-and-Goliath contest.

That August, on Bell Island in Newfoundland, McGeer sent a rental car racing down the runway with an Aerosonde on top, the first of two launches that day. On South Uist Island in Scotland, a BBC crew set up movie cameras and waited. Back then, says McGeer, ground control could communicate with a drone for only about 50 miles at either end. The team programmed in GPS waypoints and prayed that the planes would find them on their own. The plan, developed with a meteorologist from the University of Washington, was to make the 2,000-mile crossing on 1.5 gallons of fuel. After both drones failed to arrive the next day, the BBC packed up and left.

Three days later, McGeer launched two more. On South Uist the next day, a blip flashed on a laptop screen, then disappeared, leaving the landing crew tensely waiting. Soon after, a drone dropped down from the sky and landed softly in the grass. McGeer got the word by phone, in classic mission control monotone: “We have something you lost.” When he returned his rental, McGeer was thinking, “‘This is a historic car!’ But we had scratched the roof a bit and decided not to mention it.”

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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