- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - The newest winner of a prestigious scientific award at Nevada’s Desert Research Institute is a former military pilot and pioneer in the research of drones who was told a decade ago she was wasting her time studying unmanned aerial systems.

Mary “Missy” Cummings is an associate professor of engineering at Duke University and director of the school’s Humans and Autonomy Lab.

DRI President Stephen Wells said she’s a “champion of women in science and the military” who’s well deserving of the 29th annual Nevada Medal.

One of Navy’s first female fighter pilots, flying an F/A-18 Hornet, Cummings served as a naval officer for 11 years before leaving the service in 1999 to pursue her passion for technology in the academic world. She said she’s deeply honored to receive the award, which includes an eight-ounce minted medallion of .999 pure Nevada silver and $20,000 in lecture honorarium.

It’s “a reflection not just on my efforts but on all my students and fellow researchers who struggled in the trenches for years to move unmanned aerial vehicles, aka UAVs or drones, into the mainstream,” said Cummings, who is also an affiliate professor with the University of Washington’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department.

“It was exactly 10 years ago that an editor of a prestigious journal told me that UAV research was of little utility since they would never gain widespread acceptance,” she said.

Wells said Cummings is leading a team of researchers and engineers at Duke focused on the complex interactions of human interaction with drones “and the social and ethical implications of such new technologies that have the potential to dramatically impact both industry and humanity.”

“Innovation demands increased responsibility and public understanding,” Wells said. “Her work in advancing these new technologies and advocating for cutting-edge scientific research and responsible policy that will impact humanity for years to come.”

The DRI Nevada Medal is a national award given annually, since 1988, by the Desert Research Institute to recognize and stimulate outstanding scientific, engineering and technical achievements.

Past winners have ranged from astro-biologists, botanists and chemists, to physicists and scientific experts in air quality, water clarity and the evolution of desert landforms.

They include the late Dwight Billings, a former Nevadan and Duke University professor many regard the father of plant physiological ecology; the University of Iowa’s James A. Van Allen, a pioneer in the use of unmanned space probes who discovered the “Van Allen Radiation Belt” surrounding the Earth; and Charles Goldman, a pioneering researcher at Lake Tahoe who has studied lakes and watersheds around the world.

Cummings will receive the award at a formal dinner and ceremony at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in Reno on April 12, 2016, and again at a similar event April 14 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

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