"We can almost see a need for every type of UAS, from large to small," said Robbie Hood, the director of NOAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an example of a federal agency that is looking beyond the military use of unmanned systems and seeking to apply them to its broad range of missions.
"We can almost see a need for every type of UAS, from large to small," said Robbie Hood, the director of NOAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. "For right now, we are focused on small, short-endurance systems that can fly off ships."
Hood spoke at a 21 March seminar in Arlington, Va., entitled "A Washington Conversation on Unmanned Systems," hosted by the AUVSI D.C. Capitol Chapter, which focused on the scientific, agricultural and humanitarian uses for unmanned systems.
Hood said that once they are integrated into the National Airspace System, UAS will revolutionize NOAA's operations, similar to the way satellites and radar systems have done in past decades.
In the meantime, NOAA has been testing AeroVironment Pumas and Insitu ScanEagles for tasks such as weather monitoring and monitoring oil spills and is a partner in NASA's work to use much larger Global Hawks to study hurricanes.
The agency not only gets more data, and faster, but saves money, she said, as a ScanEagle can add an extra 20 kilometers to the observation area of a NOAA ship for about $15 an hour.
Aurora Flight Sciences' optionally piloted Centaur aircraft will also be used to help monitor the environment as it begins greenhouse gas monitoring in Alaska this summer, said the company's Jeff Harlan.
The Manassas, Va.-based company will be flying a heavyweight payload developed by Harvard University called FOCAL, or Flux Observations of Carbon from an Airborne Laboratory. The payload will monitor gases coming off permafrost on Alaska's north slope.
It's not just an academic exercise - if .5 percent of the permafrost melts annually, the carbon dioxide released will be equivalent to all other man-made change sources, he said.
These flights will be manned, but unmanned flights of the aircraft could occur in 2014.
Although privacy concerns with the use of unmanned aircraft weren't on the agenda, they were woven throughout the conversation. Jason Haines, a consultant for Tri-SAR Services, said that many UAS uses don't involve surveillance at all, but the public thinks that's all they do when they aren't firing missiles.
He said groups like the ACLU "have some valid concerns that need to be addressed," but there are ways to do that without grounding a promising new industry.
"Instead of restrictions, let's create the right regulations," he said.
Steve Ingley, the executive director of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, noted that the public fears armed UAS in American skies, but the police aren't interested in that.
ALEA "things that arming UAS is a really bad idea," he said.
He noted that police also aren't interested in unfocused, round-the-clock surveillance, and can't even do that with the small systems they seek to use.
"If we want persistent surveillance, we would use a camera mounted on a pole," he said. A small UAS, with its typical 15- to 30-minute endurance, is "not practical for us" for that use.
Although he noted his own frustration with the FAA's slow pace and failure to meet its congressionally mandated integration deadlines, Ingley said, "safe is better than fast, it really is."
One area of possible UAS use that has not received much attention thus for is for peacekeeping and humanitarian uses, some speakers said.
Peacekeepers and stability operations workers in foreign countries must deal with poor infrastructure and huge amounts of territory, obstacles that don't present big problems for unmanned aircraft.
Although such groups have not flocked to the technology, and may in fact oppose UAS as being just deadly drones, "there's a heck of a lot of potential to this once you can get past the stereotypes," said Chris Holshek, a former U.S. military observer in the United Nations' mission in Liberia and senior fellow with the Alliance for Peacebuilding.
Unmanned aircraft could bring a range of uses to UN and other peacekeeping and development efforts, such as by helping with infrastructure development planning, collecting war crimes evidence, conducting environmental assessments and more.
In many cases, however, nongovernmental organizations that could make use of such information "just know about drone strikes, they don't know about small systems that can fit in a trunk," said Jessica Mueller, director of programs and operations at the International Stability Operations Association.