Remotely piloted aircraft could serve as a new

tool to support polar research, observe marine mammal populations, patrol borders and monitor wildfires, as well as take on risky assignments like flying into the eye of a hurricane to assess its destructive power.

But tasking robot planes to routinely carry out

non-military duties also means safely sharing the skies with passenger-carrying aircraft within the U.S.



system. Moreover, budgetary and political support to move the idea forward is needed.

Some 150

scientists, government officials and industry specialists met here Oct.

1-3 to begin a dialogue on civilian applications for remotely controlled aircraft

. Their

goal is to chart out an integrated vision for


unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

in the United States.

“Civilian Applications of Unmanned Aircraft Systems” was billed as the first U.S. conference exclusively focused on expanding research applications of remotely piloted aircraft. The event was hosted by the University of Colorado at

Boulder, and supported by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences – a joint institute of NOAA and the University of Colorado at Boulder – and

Northrop Grumman Corp.


role for research purposes has been bolstered by military operations involving such systems

. UAVs

have shown an agility and robustness to perform assorted types of missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Scientists envision using UAVs

when the research is grubby, dull or perilous, said

Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research associate at the University of Colorado

and a coordinator of the meeting.

Examples highlighted at the conference include


air temperature, humidity and wind speeds over remote stretches of Arctic Ocean

. By flying at low altitudes and beneath cloud cover, UAVs

can snag data sets at very fine spatial scales that rival

or even outmatch

satellite observations.

“What we’ve seen is an emerging new technology – unmanned aircraft – that has proven hugely successful in the war theater … but which we think has great civilian application,” said Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald,

director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder. “You have to show the public and political systems that it’s worth spending taxpayer money … so we’re here talking about mission,” he told Space News.

MacDonald said


could be dispatched to cruise over hurricane-disrupted ocean water or remote stretches of Arctic wasteland – hazardous places where you would not want to put people


“We can see incredible uses. But we have to show those uses, and work with industry to get the right platforms,” MacDonald said

. Discussed at the meeting, he said, was the possible need for interagency coordination on UAV applications,

perhaps through a joint program office.


have the potential to offer better science at lower cost

than other systems,

said Paul Carliner of Carliner Strategies

LLC in Washington.

He cited the current use of piloted aircraft for severe weather monitoring as an example.

“It costs a lot of money to maintain a fleet of C-130s, G-5s and other government aircraft, not to mention the flight crews and the risk of sending people into the middle of hurricanes,” Carliner said. UAVs, on the other hand, can stay aloft in the middle of a hurricane far longer than a conventional aircraft, with no risk to human life, he said.

“So much money has been invested on the military side. What are the benefits that can be reaped on the civil side from that investment?”

Carliner told Space News that UAV advocates foresee a range of applications, from search and rescue, fire detection and homeland security applications to disaster preparedness and mitigation. “There’s a whole host of end-users that could potentially benefit” from unmanned aerial platforms, he said.

What is

needed now


a realization at high levels of government that civil UAVs

could be revolutionary and

have broad application, Carliner said. He warned, however, against UAV

supporters clamoring up to Capitol Hill for earmarks

to support technology development.

“Those days are over,” Carliner said. What’s needed is an authorized program that has been vetted, reviewed and is competitive … a mission that has a purpose, not a specific technology, he emphasized.

An industry-

government partnership to push forward on UAV

technology, flight protocols and certification is necessary, Carliner said.

The “big hurdle,”

he said, is getting UAVs

certified to fly in the U.S. airspace.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s current mandate is to modernize the air traffic control system, so its

hands are full, Carliner said. Besides, he added, the

role of UAVs

is not a front-burner issue for the

agency, unless such drones

are identified

as a priority with appropriate funding attached


“It’s really important for us to keep this dialogue up … and to keep asking the questions … and, in turn, accepting the answers,” said Ardyth Williams, an air traffic manager for the Federal Aviation Administration


“The U.S. has the safest, busiest and most complex airspace system in the world,” Williams noted.

Williams pointed out that the U.S. Department of Defense

has reported that UAV

accidents are far more frequent than mishaps involving piloted aircraft


There is a need for experts in software, avionics

and aerodynamics research


share data in a common place to further the UAV

agenda, Williams said. “We need the best and the brightest” to help integrate and navigate unmanned aircraft systems in both U.S. and international airspace, she


For more information on the

Civilian Applications of Unmanned Aircraft Systems conference, visit

their Web site at: