[...] At the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory [INEEL] in Idaho Falls, the robotics lab is doing just that. "We talked to Leo [Geis, owner of Idaho Airships] about using his blimp and then started looking at alternative methods such as remote helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft," said Mark McKay, advisory engineer at INEEL's robotics lab. INEEL is interested in ways to capture samples of smoke during a fire to determine whether harmful contaminants are being burned. But it would be dangerous, and expensive, to have a pilot fly through the smoke.
Discussions with Geis led to INEEL developing its own remote-controlled helicopter, and then researchers advised Geis on developing his aircraft, trading information and expertise.
McKay is fascinated by the variety of uses the helicopters could have in the future. "It can range from photography to surveillance Ñ there are guys making a lot of money in the movie industry doing this," said McKay. "Our research is focused on taking the skill out of it and having a computer do most of the flying. The real issue behind these things is it takes a very skilled radio-control pilot to run these things. And there are just a few individuals who have gone through the training and have the talent to do this." Making the equipment easier would in turn make the technology proliferate, said McKay, allowing agencies such as law enforcement to adopt the helicopters for a variety of uses. "Remember the O.J. Simpson car chase?" he said. "You could use one of these helicopters and have it lock onto and track a vehicle. That's where we're headed, but we're not there yet" [...]
(Written by Julie Howard and published in the 28 September 2003 issue of The Idaho Statesman.)
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