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Drones: More than SpyBots, Could be Used for Research at Penn State

Jack Langelaan and a 'drone' from the AVIA lab.
Patrick Mansell
Penn State


When most people hear the word ‘drones,’ they think of government spying and undercover military operations. But research labs like Penn State’s Aerospace Engineering Lab are looking into other important uses for drones. WPSU’s Erin Cassidy Hendrick visited the lab to talk about potential uses for drones—and discovered being in the cutting edge can have a downside.

A small drone, only about the size of an apple, flies through The Air Vehicle Intelligence and Anatomy Lab, nicknamed the AVIA lab.

Jack Langelaan, associate professor of aerospace engineering, says the negative media attention on ‘drones’ has led researchers to dislike the term.

“In part because of the negative connotations, but also because the word drone implies non-intelligence and stupidity almost,” he said.

The AVIA lab builds drones to perfect their operating systems and flight maneuvers. But due to current FAA regulations, their on-campus research is limited to flying the drones in simulations and inside their office.

Langelaan said the research applications for drones could be endless. Like flying them into tornadoes to better understand why and how they form. Or, using them in agriculture to determine which areas need water rather than irrigating the entire crop. But flying the drones anywhere, including over the land of Penn State’s campus, isn’t allowed by federal law.

“Right now, the FAA (the federal aviation administration) basically strongly restricts the use of unmanned aircraft. The FAA defines as an 'airplane' basically anything that flies and they claim jurisdiction over the air space down to the level of the grass," he said.

The team travels to Virginia Tech, which is one of the few universities in the country with the authorization to fly drones on its campus.

“It’s really a non-ideal situation because you know if I want to go to Virginia Tech to fly a drone, it’s a six-hour drive. So it slows down the research cycle a lot,” he said.

In the lab, PhD student John Bird runs a simulation, where a large stationary drone imitates the actions of a real-life flight through a computer.

“I’m flying off what you see here, I guess ostensibly what you’d see out of the airplane if we had a camera on it and it was flying in real life. So I’m using this to fly the airplane, just as if I was actually flying it,” Bird said.

Langelaan explained the simulations were “kind of the airplane version of a hamster wheel.”

Simulations are helpful and necessary, but it’s tough when it’s the only thing you can do on campus. Interim Vice President of Research at Penn State, Neil Sharkey, says it is unfortunate drone experimentation is still so limited.

“It’s putting a pinch on our research. Universities like Penn State and others would really love to see those regulations re-vamped so they allow institutions of higher learning have a little more freedom,” Sharkey said.

Public perception may be that without these regulations, anyone could fly a drone over your house and spy on citizens. But currently, Penn State is only seeking to gain FAA authorization to use and test drones over their own property.

The regulations exist because drones can interfere with other aircrafts and the potential for privacy abuse. Sharkey says he understands these worries, but he is confident that FAA will ultimately allow public universities to conduct their research.

“Eventually the feds will get it right and listen to our concerns. I think the work our aerospace engineers are doing is extremely important for them, the country, and for our students,” he said.

Going forward, drones could provide data that’s never been gathered before. The AVIA lab’s application for FAA approval was denied in 2012, so, the team will continue to collaborate with other universities to cruise the skies.

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