Campuses fly drones for more peaceful purposes

Researchers are developing peaceful uses for unmanned, remote control quadcopters and fixed-wing aircraft

The very thought of drone aircraft makes many people uneasy. After all, drones carrying out attacks on terrorist groups and conducting police surveillance have been in the headlines recently.

Now, they are showing up on college and university campuses but, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, “These are not the drones you are looking for.”

Researchers are developing peaceful uses for unmanned, remote control quadcopters and fixed-wing aircraft. One such project in the works at MIT’s Senseable City Lab is named SkyCall. It’s a quadcopter that leads lost visitors to their destinations on the university’s sprawling campus.

A simple smartphone call by the visitor summons the drone, which then leads the way while a digital voice acts as a tour guide, pointing out interesting campus features en route. Here’s a video of the drone in action. 

The University of North Dakota was the first higher education institution to break into drone studies in 2009, but many institutions have since followed suit with their own unmanned aviation programs, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Fla.), Kansas State University, Salina, Oklahoma State University, Kent State University (Ohio), Georgia Institute of Technology and Indiana State University, among others.

There’s even an Unmanned Vehicle University in Arizona, where students can pursue master’s and doctorate degrees in unmanned systems engineering.

Although colleges are able to build and fly the aircraft on their own, more extensive development for commercial purposes requires government approval. Last fall, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that institutions in six states will host official research sites. Named to date are the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Virginia Tech. Others will be chosen in Nevada, New York and North Dakota.

The states were selected for their diverse climates, geography and air traffic environments. The FAA predicts that as many as 10,000 remote-piloted planes will be operating in American airspace within five years.

Amazon made news recently when it showed off its experimental delivery drones in a “60 Minutes” segment, but that’s just the start. With their camera guidance systems, drones could also be useful to farmers checking crops, or for search and rescue missions and fighting fires, says Kelly Cohen, associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Cincinnati.

“Drones have gotten a very bad rap for various reasons,” Cohen told, adding that “students see that unmanned systems can have a positive impact on society.” —Tim Goral


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