SANANTONIO -- Gene Robinson is a pilot. But lately, he s stepped out of the cockpit to fly remotely.
His Spectra Flying Wing buzzes incessantly overhead, darting and banking for our cameras.
Robinson is oblivious to our presence. His hands are on a remote control that resembles an X-Box controller, while his eyes remain glued to the skies and his aircraft.
There are many good things to come from them, Robinson said.
Ours is a nation that drones on and on about unmanned aerial aircraft, or UAVs: from deadly military strikes in the Middle East, made with the Predator B drone, to artistic renditions of drones as small as insects, armed with poisons, to deliver an assassination attempt.
Robinson s drones hunt for people, too, but it s a hunt with an altruistic purpose.
His company, RPSearch Services, has combed both woods and bayous in 29 states and four countries and boasts of making 10 recoveries of the bodies of loved ones who have gone missing.
The small payloads the drone carries aren t just cameras: thermal imaging systems, night vision and infrared are just the beginning for an industry that is expected to boom in the next decade.
In a search, time is of the essence, Robinson said.
His Spectra Flying Wing weighs less than four pounds, yet it can fly on autopilot, taking photos or streaming video.
Robinson and his team have learned to zero in on the anomalies in the photos.
The anomalies could be clothing... or could be bodies.
We re able to pull the targets out of the image, things that don t really belong in the picture, Robinson said.
Commercial use of drones is being studied by the Federal Aviation Administration. Currently, you need special permission from the FAA in order to fly UAVs. Dozens of agencies in the military, law enforcement and universities have sought that authorization. But commercial use is still prohibited. Those who fly drones as a hobby are exempt.
Robinson said he skirts the law by being a non-profit organization. But he said commercial flights of drones are happening despite the FAA ban.
What is that dangerous job that a small unmanned aircraft can do? There are tons of them out there, and that is where the UAV is going to thrive and be most commercial, he said. It could be a roof inspector, a real estate agent. It could be a bridge inspector to fly under a bridge and inspect it safely, without putting a human in harm s way.
They give us a perspective that is very hard to get otherwise, said Alexander Maranghides, a researcher with the National Institute of Standards and Technology s Wildland Urban Interface Fire Research.
In 2011, Bastrop residents ran for their lives when a wind-fueled fire devastated their county at about the same time the National Institute of Standards and Technology began working with UAVs.
The federal agency is using drones to collect fire behavior data to help firefighters tackle future wildfires.
The drones monitored a prescribed burn at Camp Swift three weeks ago, taking measurements of a fire s progress through buffalo grass.
It s only through these large experiments that we can really understand the critical physics that drive fire. And we can use that knowledge to create reliable tools for the incident commanders and first responders, Maranghides said.
Successes in the research field are opening up opportunities for drone usage in monitoring oil pipelines, coastal erosion and farming.
Expect the FAA s job to get busier, as unmanned aircraft and their payloads become cheaper.
As for the drone s commercial applications, it appears the sky s the limit.