London, July 20 : Some of the leading proponents of UAV (Unmanned aerial vehicles) technology have said that opportunities to use their vehicles for scientific research are being missed because of restrictive regulation on the civilian use of UAVs.
Though robots that are able to explore harsh, remote environments have brought rich rewards for marine scientists, in the skies, progress in using unmanned aerial vehicles has been surprisingly slow.
According to a report in Nature News, a meeting of some of the leading proponents of UAV technology was held to bring to light this issue, at the UK's Farnborough International Airshow recently.
Their message was clear: opportunities to use their vehicles for scientific research are being missed, thanks to restrictive regulation on the civilian use of UAVs.
Unmanned aeroplanes already help the military perform dangerous, dirty surveillance tasks.
But according to Guy Gratton, head of the UK's Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM) based at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, unmanned aircraft could also provide researchers with the chance to monitor hostile areas for longer.
The chance to monitor the atmosphere at high altitudes for 30 days or more, for example, would provide swathes of useful data that would be impossible to collect with manned aircraft.
According to Atmospheric chemist Dwayne Heard from Leeds University, UK, chemists would benefit enormously from being able to take measurements of trace gases and aerosols in the lowest part of the atmosphere, up to a kilometre above the ground.
"We are hampered by the availability of the UAVs, and also the limits of the instrumentation that can go on the aircraft," he said.
"There's a big hole in the legislation," said Stephen Prior, leader of a UAV development team from Middlesex University in London, which has created a tri-rotor flying machine capable of vertical take-off and landing.
That legislative hole means that his 3.5-kg craft is regulated in the same way as a model aeroplane.
Most UAVs still require a human operator on the ground, and if they are lighter than 7 kg must remain within visual range of the operator, according to the UK Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA) regulations.
Larger craft undergo a more rigorous certification process by the CAA, and may be restricted to where and how they can fly - not being allowed in built-up areas, for example.
"It's virtually impossible to get permissions beyond some narrow experimental work in declared flight areas," said Gratton.
According to John Ackerman of Flight Refuelling in Wimborne, UK, fully automated UAVs will eventually become commonplace, once such automated navigation technologies are accepted.
"I think we will end up with a fully automatic system. But I don't think anyone is ready for it yet," he said.