Why Colleges Want Drones

Schools are requesting to fly the unmanned aircraft for multiple reasons.

Universities across America really like the idea of using drones.

New data released by the Federal Aviation Administration shows that colleges and universities accounted for 25 percent of more than 900 requests seeking approval to fly drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, in the U.S. The schools use the devices for everything from academics to disaster response, environmental research and agricultural monitoring. Some have even used them to film football practices and games.

"It's like a gun," says Mark Blanks, manager of Kansas State University's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. "Great technology can be used for good or for bad."

Kansas State has a fleet of two dozen drones that buzz around the area for both research and academic purposes. The university has offered a bachelor's degree in unmanned aircraft systems flight operations since 2011, Blanks says. Students in the program take courses on basic electronics, piloting, aviation repairs, general psychology and trigonometry, among other subjects.

On the research side, drones can be a cost-efficient and timesaving way to respond to different types of natural disasters and search and rescue missions.

"Often minutes can be very crucial," Blanks says.

The aircraft also provide a distinct advantage in endurance and proximity. In rescue missions following devastating tornadoes, like the 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, searches can last for hours on end – a duration that might not be feasible for responders on the ground or typical manned aircraft. Search helicopters also can create noise that distracts rescuers on the ground from hearing and locating survivors. Drones can help in those situations because they can be flown for long periods of time and don't produce the same noise other aircraft do.

The University of Colorado-Boulder – which had nearly 30 waiver requests to fly drones, according to the FAA data – has recently used the technology to measure supercell thunderstorms, a specific type of storm that can produce tornadoes, says Brian Argrow, an aerospace engineering professor at the university.

Argrow says meteorologists still don't have a solid understanding of why most supercell thunderstorms don't produce tornadoes – and they can't safely get close enough to the storms to gather data on temperatures, humidity and pressure that could help them find out. That's where drones come in handy.

"Our motivation is the scientists are now trying to answer big questions about climate, about whether they can develop the capabilities for warning and mitigating for the public to be able to respond to these things," Argrow says. "Our engineering objectives are to develop these systems that can be deployed by us or the scientists to collect these data you cannot get any other way."

Aside from their public safety applications, universities have used unmanned aircraft systems for agricultural monitoring. Schools with larger drones, like the University of California-Davis, can use them for crop dusting. At Kansas State, which focuses more on small aircraft systems, the focus lies more on inspecting crops.

Remote sensing via drone can help determine if there are bare spots, irrigation pivots that aren't functioning, flood damage in fields and plant health, among other conditions.

Still, some information is only as good as other supporting data.

"Just because I have a plant that looks greener, it doesn't tell me what the problem is," Blanks says.

Read the original story by Allie Bidwell, here.