HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- We've all seen them buzzing overhead. We're certainly admired the great aerial video they make possible. Some of us own them. We call them drones, while the military has a fancier name, Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
All of them owe a debt to the flying Bassett, a prototype unmanned aircraft developed more than 15 years ago. "We got into it after 9/11, because everyone was looking at security and how to protect infrastructure throughout the nation, and our military infrastructure," said Gary Maddux, the Director of the UAH Systems Management and Production Center.
Bassett stands for "Base Airborne Surveillance and Sensing for Emerging Threat Tracking." The aircraft itself was a noisy, four-foot long, gas fueled model helicopter that became a tool for research and learning.
"This was new territory, that you were going to put something airborne and put sensor packages. What were sensor packages? There was no definition," said Jim Lawrence a Research Scientist at UAH.
Someone did have to figure out how to use unmanned aircraft, and that's exactly what the scientists, teachers and students did at UAH. There was one unavoidable problem. "We had ideas that far exceeded the technology of the time," says Jim Lawrence.
That early research that was dependent on technology of the time did start the ball rolling to now. "Every kid six years old got a drone for Christmas, so that the technology, the cameras and everything, everything is miniaturized now," said Norven Goddard, a Research Scientists at the Systems Management and Production Center.
Like all the other men and women in the Department, Goddard is thinking about what's next for unmanned aircraft. One thing that's certain, the process of 3-D printing is opening up new ways to manufacture drones. Also, they're getting smaller and smaller.
At UAH one project in the works is developing technology to make a flying drone invisible from the ground. All the new developments are pretty spectacular, but they came from a much more humble beginning. "All those things that people are using now and think are commonplace were not commonplace. We planted the seed," said Jim Lawrence.
All the researchers at the Systems Management and Production Center believe they made, and are continuing to make a contribution to the world of unmanned aircraft that we have today.