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Intelligent Machines

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.”

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