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Sunday, March 24, 2013 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.
College degree in drones takes off
By MATTHEW L. WALD
The New York Times
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — On the pilot’s computer screen, planted at ground level a few yards from the airport runway in Grand Forks, the data streaming across the display tracked an airplane at 1,300 feet above a small city on the coast, making perfect circles at 150 mph.
To the pilot’s right, a sensor operator was aiming a camera on the plane to pan, tilt and zoom in a search among the houses for people who had been reported missing.
On his screen, cartoonlike human figures appeared in a gathering around a campfire between the houses.
“There they are,” Andrew Regenhard, the pilot and a student, said in a flat tone that seemed out of place with a successful rescue mission.
In fact, no one was missing; the exercise used imaginary props and locales. Regenhard was taking part in a training session at the University of North Dakota. The university, the first to offer a degree program in unmanned aviation, is one of many academic settings, along with companies and individuals, preparing for a brave new world in which cheap, remote-controlled airplanes will be ubiquitous in civilian airspace, searching for everything from the most wanted of criminal suspects to a swarm of grasshoppers devouring a crop.
“The sky’s going to be dark with these things,” said Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine, who started the hobbyist website DIY Drones and runs a company, 3D Robotics, that sells unmanned aerial vehicles and equipment. He says it is selling about as many drones every calendar quarter — about 7,500 — as the U.S. military flies in total.
The burst of activity in remotely operated planes stems from the confluence of two factors: electronics and communications gear has become dirt cheap, enabling the conversion of hobbyist radio-controlled planes into sophisticated platforms for surveillance, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been ordered by Congress to work out a way to integrate these aircraft into the national airspace by 2015.
Some fans of the technology wince at the word “drone,” which implies there is no pilot, and they have grown resentful about the alarms raised about privacy, noting that a few city and state governments have begun banning drones even where they do not operate.
Tom Kenville, chairman of the North Dakota chapter of the trade association, Unmanned Applications Institute International, said such bans would discourage technological progress.
Back in the university lab, Rico Becker, a software developer with Kirkland, Wash.-based Corsair Engineering, which had written a program for the students, stressed that the “missing persons” exercise was one of many hypothetical missions students would fly. “We’re not training pilots to spot people camping in their backyards,” he said.
Experts outline a number of uses for the planes: “precision agriculture,” with tiny planes inspecting crops several times a week for the first sign of blight or insect invasion; safety missions by semiautonomous flying machines that could cruise the two-mile length of a freight train and examine the air brakes on each car, far faster than a person could, and be available for accident assessment in case of derailment; inspection operations of pipelines or power lines, a job that is notoriously dangerous for helicopters, and scouting out fires or vehicle crashes.
Volunteer fire departments in places such as Grand Forks, Kenville said, would provide a clear market. An unmanned vehicle, he said, was “going to beat all the cars there” to determine the scope of a problem.
“If it’s a chemical fire, it will tell us to stay away, or it’s just some hay bales, drive slower,” he said.
Remote-control equipment might displace some human pilots, in the cockpits of cargo planes.
“This is money,” said Matthew Opsahl, in another part of the University of North Dakota simulation lab, at a work station where an operator could coordinate several remotely operated planes. One person could handle six cargo planes at a time, he said, or direct ground-based crews of several remotely operated planes that were scanning a large-scale event, such as a spreading forest fire. The operator could compare the aerial images with those from Google maps, identifying street names and addresses to forward to a 911 call center.
Opsahl, a former pilot for a regional airline, is an instructor in the North Dakota program, where Regenhard, 21, a junior from Prescott, Wis., has a double major in commercial aviation and in unmanned aerial systems. Regenhard is also building a six-rotor helicopter that will beam pictures back to someone on the ground, photos that might be used to inspect rooftop air-conditioners or offer a bird’s-eye view of a crime scene.
Equipped with a GPS sensor and a $220 autopilot, it can be programmed to fly to a sequence of coordinates, at various altitudes, much the way an airliner can. Or it can simply broadcast its position to a distant ground station, where an operator can use a computer keyboard and mouse, or a joystick, to direct it.
Key problem remains
The unresolved question is how to avoid midair collisions, because the operator on the ground cannot see other traffic in the air. The FAA plans to have a system ready by 2015 called “sense and avoid” in which each plane in the sky, manned or unmanned, uses GPS equipment to locate itself, and sends that information to a computer on the ground that draws a map showing all targets. The computer then rebroadcasts that map to every pilot in the air — or at a computer workstation on the ground, as the case may be.
The progress of electronics seems relentless. Anderson, of 3D Robotics, said all the components in a drone — a fast processor, a good battery, a GPS receiver and micro-electromechancial sensors — were present in an iPhone.
The rapid progress has driven a burst of commercial activity — and a lot of anxiety.
As demonstrated at the university, the technology seems whiz-bang but unthreatening. The unmanned aerial systems include a ground station, usually a laptop with some communications gear attached, and some of the flying vehicles weigh only a few pounds.
The field is embryonic. “We’re in the Wilbur Wright years of the UAS industry,” said Bruce Gjovig, director of the Center for Innovation, a business incubator, at the University of North Dakota.
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