Photo: US Air Force (Flickr)
Most people think of drones as remote-controlled killing machines used to eradicate threats to U.S. national security. Proponents of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are trying to change this negative perception as they try to prepare the public for their eventual incorporation into our everyday lives.
Devain Kirker is a junior at Indiana State University, majoring in criminology with a minor in Aviation Flight Technology and Unmanned Systems. He’s training for a career as an operator of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or as they’re more commonly known, drones.
“The unmanned systems industry is exploding right now, and I definitely want to jump on board with that,” says Kirker.
Kirker initially wanted to be a pilot, but due to the high cost of flying lessons, he decided to switch to Unmanned Systems, a minor in ISU’s Center for Unmanned Systems and Human Capitol Development.
Jeffrey Hauser is the Director of the Unmanned Systems program at ISU, as well as the Assistant Adjutant General for the Air Wing of the National Guard in Indiana.
“What we want to train is operators. We know we’re not engineers like Purdue or Rose Hulman, we don’t do a lot of the communications, the cyber stuff like IU,” says Hauser.
Program Explores Non-Military Drone Uses
At the Center for Unmanned Systems, Hauser says the focus is on the many applications for unmanned systems technology that aren’t military or defense related.
“We really want to look hard into the areas of agriculture, which will probably be one of the biggest areas, as well as domestic ops and first responders.”
Hauser says that more than the vehicle itself, the real innovation is the data gathering capabilities that UAV’s can provide by mounting the vehicles with sensors.
“There are so many different types of sensors to give you different data, whether it be something that can look just like TV, it can be thermal, it can be chemical, if you’re looking to get some kind of smell or what’s in the air, hyperspectral- which is what you’ll use a lot in agriculture, you can tell how much water, how much chemicals are in the ground, where you need to put more chemicals, there’s just so many variants of sensors you could use,” says Hauser.
Kirker hopes to combine what he’s learning in his unmanned systems classes with his Criminology major.
“I want to instill UAV programs in local law enforcement, first responders, so they can respond to accidents more effectively, for like maybe chemical spills.”
Kirker says eventually he’d like to manage an automated delivery or packaging ground system, like the one presented by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos last year.
There are external forces at play right here in Indiana that could have an impact on his career aspirations.
Indiana was recently denied designation as one of the FAA’s six testing sites for UAV’s. The testing sites are part of an FAA initiative to get UAV’s into U.S. airspace by 2015. The FAA chose sites in New York, Virginia, North Dakota, Texas, Nevada and Alaska.
Indiana and Ohio had submitted a joint bid, because they’ve pooled their resources into research facilities like the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex in Springfield, OH in order to create a strong regional testing ground.
Though they won’t have as much federal money coming in, being passed over as a test site might actually be a blessing in disguise, according to Matt Konkler, Executive Director for Complex Operations at the National Center for Complex Operations based here in Indiana.
“We really see this as an opportunity to not have the federal government peering over our shoulder and putting regulations on us when we can and can not fly but to really go after some of the other opportunities that are out there, most likely in the academic sector. We feel it’s a positive thing, and not necessarily a negative thing.”
In late April, the Ohio/Indiana UAS Test Center and Complex will host a competition in conjunction with NASA at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh. The competition will demonstrate sense and avoid capabilities of UAV’s that are critical to their integration into the national airspace.
“It’s a particular component of unmanned systems, how do they see and avoid each other in the sky, and so it’s a very critical and important competiton, and the results will help to further the safety of this industry.”
According to Konkler, FAA representatives and a cadre of Department of Defense, NASA and other government and private industry officials will attend the competition. Devain Kirker will be keeping a close eye, too.
“Sense and avoid is going to determine whether unmanned systems are going to be integrated within the airspace,” says Kirker.
Lawmakers Worry About Drone Implications
Besides the obvious safety concerns, there are other potential impacts associated with UAV’s that worry some state lawmakers.
A bill making its way through the legislature requires law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant in order to use an unmanned aerial vehicle. Rep. Matt Pierce co-authored the legislation. He says if the state doesn’t put parameters on the technology now, it could lead to problems down the road.
“The issue is, once you make it so easy to do that kind of surveillance, then you get into a program where you’re just kind of blanketly monitoring what people are doing, and you can have these smaller vehicles kind of just in the air all the time just basically checking out what’s going on, and that gets you a lot closer to this 1984 world of continuous government surveillance,” says Pierce.
Jeff Hauser agrees that we need to regulate this new technology.
“That makes good sense, because people are worried about privacy,” says Hauser. “What we have to do is hold people accountable.”
Kirker knows that he has a lot riding on the things that are happening in his chosen industry both state and nationwide.
“The laws and regulations that are created today and tomorrow and in the next couple of years,” says Kirker, “will effect what I can do in my career.”