It hums softly as it ascends into the air, like something out of a science fiction movie.
Floating in place until Glenn Cullingford, chief pilot for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, directs it from his controller, the unmanned droned is a fraction of the size of the helicopters and planes buzzing at Florida Keys Marathon Airport.
But don't let the smaller stature fool you — it may become one of the district's most cost-saving tools. With a camera mounted to the bottom of the flying device, field agents will have a bird's eye view of mosquito breeding grounds and better range at killing disease-carrying insects.
"We're the first mosquito control district in the country to have this," Cullingford said. "Movie production companies, cities and universities have [certificates of authority] issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. When you look at the FAA list for these, we stand out."
The district bought two Phantom Vision 2+ quadcopters -- drones with four propellers -- for $1,500 each in December. They will be used to survey potential breeding grounds that are hard to reach in person.
Cullingford said offshore islands such as those near Little Torch Key will be prime areas for surveillance. The drones will give workers a better idea of where breeding grounds are, saving work hours and improving efficiency.
Concerns over privacy and no-fly zones have been have been raised. Cullingford said those fears are exaggerated because Mosquito Control already can see people via helicopter.
FAA restrictions prohibit the drones from flying five miles within airports, and they must be in sight of the operator at all times. They also have a flight limit of 400 feet in the air.
The units can fly for 20 to 30 minutes on a single battery and will fly back to its lift-off point when low on energy.
"We're developing a training session for field inspectors to go through. They'll have to master it, hovering it through a series of obstacles," Cullingford said. "We might have six to 10 field agents trained to use it. Not every single person wants to use it."
The units can also be programmed to fly autonomously, with coordinates programmed from a smartphone.
Cullingford said some drones elsewhere have been adapted to drop larvicide and fitted with underwater cameras. For Keys Mosquito Control, the units may be upgraded to a multi-spectral camera that can distinguish vegetation by color, identifying plants mosquitoes may be more attracted to.
How often the drones will be used hasn't been established yet. In many ways, Keys Mosquito Control is a test for the FAA.
"The FAA is still developing all the rules," Cullingford said. But we have our certificate of authority issued by the FAA and it can be used for most of the Keys."