CORVALLIS, Oregon—“Everyone step back 20 meters!” Michael Wing shouts before a Phantom 3 quadcopter loaded with sensors takes off in a clearing. Even though the drone’s pilot, Jonathan Burnett, has many hours of flying under his belt, caution is at the forefront. “All it takes is a fraction of a second to damage your arm, your hand, or your face,” Wing says, pointing at a set of six-inch blades.
I take the message to heart and back up a lot farther than I need to. By the time I stop walking Burnett has started up the rotors of the three-pound, two-foot-long machine. The buzz isn’t as loud as I expected, but I’m still glad that I’m not standing next to it.
Then, in a flash, the drone is in the air. It shoots upward, levels off, and then zips across the field. At the controls, Burnett swings it around and points it where it needs to go. Every change in direction is in the blink of an eye.
Wing and Burnett aren’t flying for fun or testing a way to deliver your packages by air,Jetsons style. Rather they’re scientists, and the flying robot buzzing overhead may just help save the world’s forests and the wildlife that depend on them. That includes nearly a million acres of Douglas fir trees in the Pacific Northwest that are dying of a disease that is spreading rapidly throughout the region.