After a contentious election, the US Government will be returning to business as usual soon and one thing both sides agree on is that the cost of government needs to be reduced. A recent report by the US Geological Survey illustrates how robots are helping out with this problem. Airborne scientific observation missions can cost as much as $30,000 per hour. The USGS is replacing these expensive airborne data gathering missions with remotely piloted vehicles, or drones, which can complete an entire mission for $3,000. So far the USGS is using the Honeywell T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) and AeroVironment Raven RQ-11B. The Raven in particular has other advantages over manned missions besides cost. From the report:
The initial USGS mission in March 2011 studied the annual north-south migration of endangered sandhill cranes from Arizona through Colorado to Montana and Wyoming. The cranes fly north in the first part of February and spend much of each spring in Colorado’s San Luis Valley at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Thermal cameras capturing images of the cranes at roost were used to determine population trends in collaboration with the FWS. “Because the Raven is small and quiet, it could fly low enough – 75 feet – to photograph the birds without disturbing them. Moreover, the mission cost only one-tenth of a conventional airborne survey"
Having proved that using robotic aircraft can dramatically reduce costs, the USGS is looking for other missions that can take advantage of the drones. They'll soon be replacing conventional aircraft in climate change studies, geophysical fault and fracture mapping missions, and other tasks. The USGS will team with NASA Ames Research Center to use the SIERRA UAS. They also hope to increase the autonomy of the planes, further reducing the need for expensive human interaction. Read on to see photos and video of the USGS drones in action.