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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Ready to Take Off Part 2: The Gorge Does Drones

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 18, 2011

A good place to watch the developing drone revolution, with all its technological, commercial and ethical complications, is an hour east of Portland, Oregon, in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, an area otherwise known for windsurfing, craft beer and political progressivism. Go almost anywhere on either side of the river—to an old school building in Bingen, Washington, say, or a former Chevy dealership in Hood River, Oregon—and you will find somebody working on drones.

The aeronautical engineer who got the industry started here is a boyish, reclusive character in his mid-50s with the perfect garage-inventor name, Tad McGeer. He runs the Aerovel Corporation, a start-up with nine employees, tucked behind a dense wall of pine trees in the rugged hills above Bingen. The entrance is a narrow gravel driveway with a broken-down gate. A wrecked Cessna sits in a derelict barn, and cars cluster around a big, blocky house at the end of a hayfield.

Inside, a staffer fabricates plane parts in what was once a child’s bedroom, where the electronic controls for a coffin-like industrial oven now sit on a dresser decorated with beetles and snails. Aerovel’s mechanical engineering laboratory occupies another bedroom, with horses and hearts painted on the walls. Test engines roar in the garages at either end of the house, and if it all looks a little makeshift, that suits McGeer just fine.

“Aren’t we all amateurs?” he asks, his voice a low murmur that fades in and out like a distant radio station. “There are a lot of people doing what we do, tinkering in a garage.”

McGeer’s longtime business partner, Andy von Flotow, operates in similar fashion on a farm on the Hood River side of the gorge. But where McGeer tends to be cautious and constrained, von Flotow is about moving obstacles aside and getting business done. He has a gleeful farm boy bearing, with sun-bleached blue eyes and weather-reddened skin. He also has a high regard for calculations scratched on the back of an envelope.

In a pear orchard nearby, von Flotow points out a trailer insulated with five tons of hay. It houses a fan capable of blowing air at 80 miles an hour through a 1,500-foot length of white silage tubing stretched out over a hill. In a meadow on the other side, a cradle built on an old orchard crate is designed to hold a drone running its engine at full speed in the silent wind.

“This is my Mil-14 meadow,” von Flotow says, meaning that it meets military specifications for a sound-testing facility. (In addition to his partnership in Aerovel, von Flotow owns Hood Technology Corporation, which makes launchers, camera turrets and other military gear.) He uses the meadow in the dead of night to test different engine and muffler configurations. In springtime, the raucous calling of frogs in a nearby pond can pose a challenge. “So I phone the sheriff to tell them not to send the police and then I fire a shotgun twice.” That buys him 30 seconds of silence.

McGeer and von Flotow, both Canadians who earned doctorates in aeronautical engineering from Stanford University, have spent much of their careers as seat-of-the-pants inventors, solving problems fast and cheap. Their idea of engineering is making something for a dime that any fool can make for a dollar, and having fun doing it.

McGeer got started in drones working on one of the first civilian models, the Perseus, which made its maiden flight over the Mojave Desert in November 1991. The hole in the ozone layer was a hot issue then, and the idea was that Perseus would take sophisticated measurements of atmospheric chemistry at high altitudes over Antarctica. But McGeer soon split off to develop the Aerosonde, a drone with a ten-foot wingspan that could take routine weather measurements by moving autonomously up and down through the atmosphere. He named the company Insitu, Latin for “in place.” “It would not have been possible to conceive of the idea a few years earlier,” says McGeer.  But the U.S. government had recently opened the military Global Positioning System (GPS) to civilian use. Miniaturized computers, sensors and communications gear also made such a drone seem practical.  (Continued)

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