The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to groundbreaking innovations in new technologies. Many of those advances came in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. In February of 2012, President Barack Obama signed a mandate that will open the skies over the U.S. to commercial UAVs in 2015. The move launched a multi-billion dollar industry as manufacturers meet the growing demands of privately owned UAVs. Some wonder, however, if the nation’s laws can keep up with the UAV boom.
In his third floor office at the College of Journalism and Mass Communication on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, Professor Matt Waite showed off his latest gadget.
As he picked up a remote resembling a controller for a video game, Waite said “What this thing will teach you, beyond humility, is to keep nice and steady and stable."
Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News
Professor Matt Waite practices flying his micro UAV in his office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. On his desk sits the larger UAV, which can hold a small camera.
This thing is an unmanned aerial vehicle, also called a UAV or drone.
In the last decade, drones garnered both praise and harsh criticism as the U.S. military used them in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones were first deployed for surveillance purposes, and later outfitted with weapons for attack missions.
The drones Waite wants to deploy in his field of journalism, though, are vastly different.
"My experience, so far, is that we’ve all seen too many movies,” Waite said, “and we have some pretty wild-eyed ideas as to what these things can do, and the reality is a lot less sexy.”
In addition to the drone Waite uses to train, which is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and looks more like a robotic cricket than an attack vehicle, he’s also experimenting with a slightly larger model.
The larger drone is about the size of a basketball, and has four long, metal struts with propellers on the end of each section. It’s more stable, more powerful, and can carry a small camera. Waite said giving journalists the ability to deploy drones at a moment’s notice will lead to the future of journalism.
According to Waite, drones will allow better coverage of all types of stories, from severe weather coverage to county fairs. He cautioned, though, you shouldn’t plan on seeing your local news station flying drones around your area just yet.
“I kind of joke with people it’s the dumbest, smart-technology that I’ve seen,” Waite said, “because these kind of on-board sensors and the ability to kind of understand terrain and understand context, that stuff is being researched right now. There’s a lot of computer scientists working on those things right now.”
So just who are these people working to make UAVs smarter and easier to use?
Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News
Dr. Sebastian Elbaum (left) and Dr. Carrick Detweiller demonstrate two of the drones they are testing in their NIMBUS lab in the Schorr Center for Computer Science and Engineering on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.
Just a 10-minute walk to the other side of the UNL campus, in the Schorr Center for Computer Science and Engineering, Carrick Detweiler and Sebastian Elbaum spend countless hours in a drone test lab, developing new software and finding real-world applications for the devices.
For example, Elbaum said scientists needing to make more efficient use of time in the field could use drones to help gather samples and data in remote locations.
“The idea is that you may be monitoring from the air for a while,” Elbaum explained, “but then all of the sudden you find a body of water that has a particular section that is of interest, either because it has algae or a different color, and we are developing the technology so that the drone can get close to the water, get a sample, and get back to the scientist with that information.”
While the drone lab in the Schorr Center may be on the frontline of developing the new technology for non-military UAV’s, as a nation, Detweiler said the U.S. is lagging behind other developed countries in implementing drones in commercial capacities.
“Currently in Europe, for instance, you can fly these small micro-aerial-vehicles commercially,” Detweiler said,” so people use them for windmill inspections, real-estate photography, for monitoring crops.
Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News
An example of the drones under development by Dr. Sebastian Elbaum and Dr. Carrick Detweiller. This particular drone is being developed to collect water samples in remote locations and then return the samples to a scientist for data analysis.
"All of these things are actively being done in Europe and other countries,” he continued, “but the regulations in the U.S. prohibit the commercial use of these vehicles.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has until the fall of 2015 to open up the National Air Space for the commercial use of UAVs, but several law enforcement agencies around the nation have already gained FAA approval, and are deploying drones now.
While there aren’t any agencies in Nebraska using UAVs just yet, Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong has researched their uses for himself. He said he can see several scenarios where a UAV could be useful - for example, SWAT situations or accident reconstruction would be perfect times to use drones.
Peschong said he also understood why some people are wary of a police department wielding this type of technology.
“I think there could be a real concern about people’s privacy,” Peschong said. “And we need to make sure that if we put something in place, the public is real educated about it, that we’re not out there to invade people’s privacy.”
Protecting people’s privacy is a primary concern among drone critics.
Becki Brenner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, says as a society, Americans are falling behind in keeping up with technology from a judiciary, regulatory, and statutory perspective, .
“So we need to be very vigilant in terms of having an understanding of what the drone is going to be used for, how it’s going to be monitored, who’s going to be monitoring it," Brenner said. "How long is any of the information that’s going to be captured by the drone going to be kept? Who’s going to have access? And fundamentally, from a civil liberties perspective, what are you going to do with the information?”
When the FAA allows commercial use of drones in the National Air Space, it’s estimated 30,000 UAVs could be flying overhead in U.S. skies.
Brenner said citizens need to take advantage of the time beforehand, and keep elected officials and law enforcement personnel accountable as they begin to launch drones of their own.
“As citizens, we need to say, ‘Oh look, the police department has a drone, what are you going to use it for?’” she said. “I think we as citizens have to ask that question, and the officials need to be able to answer it.”
So as the FAA continues to deal with the pressure of figuring out just how it will meet the 2015 deadline, back at the drone lab in the Schoor Center, Detweiler and Elbaum will continue to work towards the day when they say there will be a drone in every home.
“I do think we’ll be using these for scientific applications at first,” Detweiler said, “but I do think ultimately we’ll be able to call your drone to deliver your lunch when you forget it.”