Skip to Content

Robot Sky Patrol

Unmanned aerial vehicles could help tame wildfires, unsnarl traffic jams, and even find a better cup of joe.

Wake up and sense the coffee. One day last September, that was the job of a research team led by Clark University earth scientist Stanley Herwitz, a proponent of low-cost wireless aerial imaging for the masses. Rising well before dawn, Herwitz’s team rolled Pathfinder Plus, a solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from NASA, onto a U.S. Navy runway on the island of Kauai, HI, and launched the plane into the sunrise. They guided the craft by radio to a height of 6.4 kilometers over the rapidly ripening fields of Kauai Coffee, the largest U.S. coffee plantation. There, commercial cameras under the UAV’s wing snapped digital photos of the fields at both optical and infrared frequencies and transmitted them in near-real time to image specialists who used them to identify the ripest plants and guide harvesting machines. The plantation managers “were real happy with getting a complete view of their fields,” says Herwitz, whose proposal for a UAV science mission beat 45 others in a NASA funding competition. His hope, he told Technology Review senior editor Wade Roush, is that UAVs will circle continuously over inhabited areas, relaying images that could be used to plan farm irrigation, reduce traffic jams, manage wildfires, and direct disaster relief.  “Everybody associates UAVs with the Department of Defense,” Herwitz says. “Defense may invest in this, but the reality is there will be some positive commercial uses of these aircraft.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.