Co-Authored with Avery Holton
Drones seem to be up to no good lately. Cast by the news media as pesky toys interfering with everything from wildfire containment efforts to commercial airline flights, the promise of drones is often overlooked. But the growing number of innovative uses for drones are no less important for understanding this technology. Individuals and organizations of various stripes are developing innovative uses for drones, from package delivery to search and rescue and other life-saving uses.
Universities across the United States are also contributing to drone innovation. So far, journalism programs like the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab and the Missouri Drone Journalism Program have been on the forefront of university drone innovation. Other programs, like the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College are lending a critical eye to the ethical, legal and social implications of drones while various schools of engineering develop programs focused on technical know-how.
This last academic year, at the University of Utah, we taught a pair of courses that provided students with a unique, integrated approach to drones. Students explored the ethical, legal and social implications of drones while simultaneously gaining hands-on experience building and flying drones. In short, we offered students an immersive and hands-on approach to drone education and innovation that combined critical thinking with creative application.
Inspired by the emerging drone education programs mentioned above, and with the generous support of a joint H2 Professorship awarded to us by the University of Utah’s Honors College and College of Humanities, we were able to develop and teach a series of courses.
In fall semester, our Drones and Society course offered students a deep dive into the ethical, legal and social implications of both military and civilian drones. This involved extensive reading and discussion of drone strikes, privacy concerns, safety threats, and regulatory challenges, but also a range of innovative new uses. A number of experts from Utah and beyond visited our classroom and spoke with students about these issues.
In addition to reading and discussion, students deepened their knowledge of drones by staying on top of drone news and posting weekly news digests to our course website, writing individual blog posts about a drone issue of concern to them, interviewing drone experts and posting the transcripts to the course website, and working in teams on larger projects.
In one of those projects, students wrote their own software to conduct an automated sentiment analysis of news stories about drones. Another tracked proposed drone legislation in the states. Finally, one group created a reference wiki of university drone programs in the U.S. Through it all, students had the opportunity to spend time each week learning to fly small quadcopters.
“The Drones and Society course engaged students with a unique opportunity to think critically about the ethical implications of this nascent industry’s new technologies,” says University of Utah Honors College Dean Sylvia Torti. “Specifically, issues surrounding drones served as an entry point for students to develop the skill of objective analysis, which is transferrable to other courses on campus and situations in their lives. The course was also a forum for students to imagine and articulate novel ideas for innovation.”
Student reactions to the course were equally positive. “I initially took the class because I’d been hearing so much about drones in the news last year, and I was wondering what all the hubbub was about,” says Greyson Harness, a sophomore English major who took both courses. “These courses were so much broader than I had expected. I had no idea before how complex drones were or how pervasive the technology is predicted to be in the future.”
The spring semester course, Innovation with Drones, helped students shift their focus toward innovation. Each student researched, wrote, and posted to our website profiles of drone innovators. Students took this knowledge into small groups, where each worked to develop its own innovative idea for drones. These ranged from brainstorming ways to boost the flight time of small drones, combating mosquitoes with drones, drones for herding cattle, and more.
Additionally, each group built and flew its own drone using kits obtained through 3DRobotics. Students built their airframes in the classroom with help from us and then moved to Professor Kam Leang’s Design, Automation, Robotics, and Control (DARC) Lab to calibrate their drones’ electronics and take them for a series of test flights inside the lab’s indoor flying space.
This kind of drone education is vitally important. Future innovators stand a better chance of creating responsible and socially beneficial technologies if they have a firm understanding of the social landscape within which their technologies will operate. Conversely, having hands-on experience will allow citizens and policymakers to develop more sophisticated and realistic understandings of the implications of this technology.
Providing integrated drone education remains a challenge. Staying on top of rapid technological changes is no easy feat. But the murky legal and regulatory landscape for civilian drone use in the United States is the biggest challenge. Current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policies prohibiting commercial drone use without a waiver, which can be time consuming and difficult to obtain, have made it difficult for many university drone programs.
We were fortunate to have indoor flying spaces, which allowed us to avoid running afoul of FAA policies. Many programs are not so lucky. Even still, relying on indoor flying is not a long term solution. Space constraints limited students’ ability to fly and they could not use features such as GPS and autopilot at all.
As the FAA works to develop rules for integrating drones into domestic airspace, it should take the unique circumstances of universities into account. In the meantime, universities should work to find solutions to allow drone education to flourish on campus without running afoul of FAA policies. In this way, we can continue to provide students the critical and hands-on experiences with drones that will promote a future of innovative, responsible, and socially beneficial uses of this technology.
Sean Lawson (PhD, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2008) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah where his research focuses on the relationships among science, technology, and the development of military theory and discourse.
Avery Holton (PhD, University of Texas at Austin, 2013) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, where he researches issues at the intersections of digital media, innovation, and health.
Correction: This post was updated Sept. 16, 2015, to change the order of authorship.