Drone-ing for Life in the Atmosphere

Sep 17, 2013

David Schmale, Associate Professor of Food Safety and Plant Biosecurity at Virginia Tech

There’s been a lot of talk about “drones,” remote controlled aircraft which fly with no pilot on board.  But drones are being used for more than military operations. 

A scientist at Virginia Tech has been named one of Popular Science’s  ‘Brilliant Ten for 2013” for using them to study micro organisms in the atmosphere, which can have a huge impact on what goes on, on the ground.

They look like those remote controlled toy planes you see people playing with in the park, but there is serious work being done thanks to these tiny flying machines, in a field known as aerobiology. 

“New tools are really needed to understand the flow of life in the atmosphere, so my interests have been to develop those tools to allow us to actually study life in the atmosphere 10 to hundreds of meters above the ground," says David Schmale, Associate Professor of Food Safety and Plant Biosecurity at Virginia Tech.

Scientists have long studied air currents using different kinds of flying machines, but Schmale is the first to develop an autonomous drone to do it.  The unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs can cover so much more area than ever before.  That means they can identify a tiny pathogen in a huge volume of air for early warning of potential problems for plants, animals and humans on the ground.

“What some of our research has shown is that these microorganisms are actually riding on these atmospheric waves.  These waves are akin to surfers in the ocean, riding on waves into the shore where the microorganisms are their own little surfers. Research drones are able to test our hypotheses concerning the surfers on these atmospheric waves.”

Schmale now collaborating on a National Science Foundations project to study microorganisms in rain. And this week, Popular Science Magazine named him one of its “Brilliant Ten of 2013.”   It's an honor that may have been set in motion by one of his early passions.

“I got into flying when I was about 10 years old. My grandfather said hey, David, do you want to come out and wash the plane. So we took some sponges and buckets, went out to the airport and washed the plane.  Then I asked my grandfather, ‘Where are the towel? We have to dry the plane.”  He said, that’s not how we dry the plane, get in.  And that was my first flying experience.  I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Professor David Schmale give a TEDx talk at Virginia Tech later this fall, titled, “Drone-ing for Life in the Atmosphere.”

Click here for more information about the upcoming TEDx events at Virginia Tech.