KENNEDY SPACE CENTER - Buzzing like a mechanical insect, the black Hexcopter used its six whirring propellers to hover and zoom above a grassy field, providing emergency officials a set of airborne optical and infrared eyeballs.
"He's flying over this disaster site here to the west, taking a look. He's seeing a body lying on the ground, a bicycle and the potential for hazmat. So he's videotaping all that," explained Justin Dee, an operator with Prioria Robotics, the Gainesville firm that developed the drone.
Mission accomplished, the 14-pound, 46-inch wide Hexcopter slowly settled onto the grass near Dee's tent, landing in autopilot mode after a successful exhibition flight.
Sunday, 10 robotics teams showed off the capabilities of their unmanned aircraft during a series of demonstration flights at Exploration Park, Local 6 News partner Florida Today reported. Sponsored by Space Florida, the event kicked off the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade show, which continues through Thursday at the Orange County Convention Center.
AUVSI predicts that the drone industry will create nearly 104,000 jobs nationwide by 2025, assuming that the Federal Aviation Administration integrates unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system. Projected economic impact is more than $82 billion from 2015-25.
"The past history of drones has been all military defense kind of stuff. Now, they're looking at getting into precision agriculture. Japan's been using the Yamaha helicopter to cropdust crops for years," said Joe Brannan, director of AUVSI's Florida Peninsula chapter.
"They can find the diseased (orange) trees so the farmer can go cut those out and not affect the rest of his trees. You can use them to count manatees, gators, wildlife. You can use them for forest fire spotting. You can use them to find lost people," Brannan said.
"Then, of course, you've got what shows up in the press about Amazon wanting to deliver packages with it. The commercial applications are out there, just waiting for an industry to get started. The biggest issue, of course, is getting the airspace," he said.
In March, a US Airways jet nearly collided with a camouflage-painted drone above Tallahassee Regional Airport.
"We've had that overseas in military applications many times," Brannan said of the incident. "The capability of putting one of these things up with a camera or an imager to look for stuff is invaluable. But then, you've got to be able to mix it in with other aircraft."
Sunday's drone demos utilized mannequins, gas grills that generated infrared signatures, and other props.
Northern Virginia OmniVersatile Solutions showed off its camera-equipped N-Cognito airplane with a 75-inch wingspan and cruising speed of 30 mph. Packages of three aircraft and "ground station" electronics for a human operator range from $50,000 to $70,000, said Mark Gillespie, managing member.
NV-OS is developing a system that will fly its aircraft using an Xbox 360 controller, Gillespie said.
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