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Illustration by David Pohl
Auto Pilots

Earlier this summer, National Geographic/Waitt grantee Albert Lin loaded up some horses and struck out for an uncharted region of Mongolia. Among his supplies: a month’s provisions, warm sleeping bags, and two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Once reserved for top-secret military operations, UAVs are opening new frontiers for scientists and explorers. Lin, who is searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan, used his UAVs to survey a thousand square miles with infrared cameras. The digital images will reveal variations in ground heat signals, possibly indicating Khan’s burial site. “We just program in a flight path and wait for it to come back,” he says. “If we want to fly manually, there’s a live streaming camera on the front of the bird.”

According to Gene Robinson, founder of RP Flight Systems, civilian applications for UAVs include search and rescue, border patrol, and wildfire fighting. The craft, some lighter than four pounds and with wingspans as small as one foot, can be fitted with any number of cameras and sensors and programmed to look for almost anything. “At a demo in Mexico,” says Robinson, “we caught a kidnapping and a cop taking a payoff.” —Cliff Ransom

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