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It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's a..... Drone!

I have drones on my mind! It seems that every day there's another feature about drones in the news, and these stories truly span the good, the...

I have drones on my mind! It seems that every day there’s another feature about drones in the news, and these stories truly span the good, the bad, and the ugly. For every tale about how a drone is used to deliver emergency medical equipment or to catch wildlife poachers, there’s one about somebody else using them to peek into a window or for other nefarious purposes. Everybody seems to be talking – or blogging – about them, so, I thought I’d do the same.

Professor Kitts talking to students about drones Photo Credit: Mike Rasay

Professor Kitts talking to students about drones Photo Credit: Mike Rasay

First, these “drones” are more appropriately termed “Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles” (UAVs). They are planes or copter-style vehicles operated by a pilot on the ground who flies it directly or who commands an “autopilot” computer installed on the UAV to fly a pre-determined route. Much of this technology was pioneered by the military in the late 1980s. The recent commercial explosion in this area is due largely to several technical advances: improved battery capacity, powerful small-scale electric motors, miniaturized electronics, and automatic control technology.

While simply flying a UAV can be entertaining, UAVs are typically used in three ways. First, they can be used to transport objects. Amazon’s much-publicized vision of an aerial delivery service is one example. Second, they can capture photos or video from an aerial perspective to provide imagery from a unique perspective or to create photorealistic maps. Third, they can carry special sensors that characterize the environment or that can “see” in invisible wavelengths. For instance, search and rescue UAVs carry infrared sensors to see people even at night.

On campus, UAVs have captured the attention of our students and faculty. Our engineering students are fascinated by the technology, and we have student teams developing UAV systems to provide a wide variety of services, from delivering medical supplies in rural Africa to monitoring crop health in local vineyards. One of our undergraduates even captured the glory of springtime at Santa Clara by artfully flying the Alumni Association’s drone SCUter, under, over, and through a wisteria-laden pergola. Other students are excited to be part of the emergence of a new industry, and many of them are exercising their entrepreneurial creativity to try to find a killer app. The legalities of the field – or lack thereof – are also intriguing given that the technology has moved faster than our regulatory framework. And of course, the ethical challenges ranging from privacy to social justice are a source of thoughtful debate.

Photo Credit: Mike Rasay

Photo Credit: Mike Rasay

As for me, I’m simultaneously excited and frightened. I marvel at the technology, eager to apply it in ways to improve lives yet fearful of how it can be exploited. I’m tinkering in the field myself by developing new capabilities, exploring new UAV-based services, and collaborating with campus and neighboring law enforcement agencies to establish appropriate usage policies. And I’m working with our students, enabling them to become innovators and leaders in emerging fields such as this and equipping them with a Santa Clara University sensibility that ensures they do so in a constructive, beneficial, and professional manner.

So the next time you see a drone fly by, don’t curse in vain. Instead, consider the fascinating engineering that made it possible, dream of the positive things that drones can do, and join the public discussion on how we should evolve the use of this technology to improve, rather than exploit, our society.

Engineering, Education, Technology, Ethics, Innovation
environment, legal, Santa Clara, social impact, Illuminate

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