Students and faculty at Virginia Tech are making history.
For the past few months, they've been paving the way to help introduce unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
In December 2013, Virginia Tech's experimental air station was one of six test sites designated by the Federal Aviation Administration to test drones.
The research team gave WDBJ7 a look at what they do Wednesday afternoon in Blacksburg. They call it cutting-edge technology.
"We're building custom hardware, writing custom software, and then testing them on aircraft that is fairly unproven," said professor Kevin Kochersberger.
Kochersberger is a research associate professor in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.
He said it's been full-steam ahead for professors and students at Virginia Tech since the FAA designated our region as one of six elite drone test sites in the United States.
"It's been really big," he said. "I mean my phone seems to be ringing off the hook everyday with new business opportunities, people interested in working with us, research programs."
Kochersberger said agricultural companies have showed some of the largest interest in the test site.
One of the people helping to lead the way for this research is Roanoke native JP Stewart. Stewart said he couldn't be more excited to be a member of the team.
"A lot of my hobby flying is you just go do whatever you want and here we tend to be a little more regimented," he said.
But Stewart is not your average pilot.
He is a recent Hidden Valley High School graduate and is just 19-years-old.
The Virginia Tech freshman is one of a few people responsible for driving a 200-pound helicopter that has a price tag of $250,000.
It's a job most students only dream of having, but Stewart started working with Kochersberger at a young age which he said has helped him get to where he is today.
"When the other pilot was looking to go we started looking for someone to get into it, and it fell naturally in place."
The idea of using unmanned aircraft has been a controversial one in the U.S. Many are against it, but this team said the advantages could be huge, especially in Virginia.
"It's going to make agricultural productivity higher, it's going to save lives, it's going to allow us to monitor infrastructure, provide services for businesses we don’t even anticipate at this point," said Kochersberger.
A drone like the one used Wednesday has been built to take pictures and detect radiation after a Fukushima type event. It flies about 20 to 25 meters above the ground to take its images, according to Kochersberger.
Students expect the topic of drones to continue to spark a debate across the country, but in the end, they said they are only doing the research. It will be up to the FAA to decide whether or not to make them legal.
"No one else is allowed to be in this area and we're at least laying the ground rules so the FAA can make the decision what is safe and what isn't," Kochersberger said.
Virginia Tech has a few other unmanned aircraft it has been testing in recent weeks.
The FAA is not funding this research. The initiative is funded by Virginia Tech's Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, according to a press release sent by Virginia Tech. It also said this research is a "step toward developing a multidisciplinary research center to promote commercial development of autonomous vehicles for air, land and sea."