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New course prepares students for drone revolution

Much has been made about the rise in popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones. Design, manufacturing and software advances have made contemporary drones user-friendly, relatively easy to operate right out of the box.

Yet while observers project that tens of thousands of drones will be in use by the end of the decade, drones are currently approved primarily for recreational use and, with the exception of select exempt parties, banned from commercial use. A new class at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is preparing students for the time when drone use is more widely sanctioned.
 
This spring, assistant professor of geography Tim Kennedy is teaching GEO 391/591, Special Topics/UAS Operations in Remote Sensing.
 
The first phase of the course covers Federal Aviation Administration regulations, reading aeronautical charts, communicating by radio with air traffic controllers and learning about how UAV systems work. The second phase covers actual flight training. Since outside operation is prohibited, students (like Nicolaus Anderson, pictured) practice inside the Multi-Activity Center. Finally students will move on to data collection and analysis. This is the holy grail of drone use from Kennedy’s perspective.
 
“Before the first lecture, I was developing a list of drone applications and had to quit after three pages because it just goes on and on,” says Kennedy. “This could permeate all parts of our lives. Our hope is that when the FAA comes out with a regulatory process to train and certify UAV operators, we’ll have students ready to go.”
 
Once given the green light, Kennedy envisions students flying drones to collect imagery, perform biophysical analysis, monitor crop health and support forest operations. “We’re also interested in mapping the campus, developing three-dimensional models of campus buildings and structures,” Kennedy says.
 
Beyond campus, Kennedy sees a couple of Internet heavyweights leading expansion of drone use. “One of the big areas for growth is the commercial area, with Google and Amazon using it for delivery,” says Kennedy.
 
“UAVs are also really good for dull, dirty or dangerous missions. For example, infrastructure uses like inspecting bridge piers. If we have to put somebody in a cherry picker, bucket lift or boat, it takes a long time. But it’s easy to take a drone out and record imagery of that pier.
 
“We will be able to throw one in the back of a vehicle, drive to Schmeeckle Reserve or Treehaven or another study area and start collecting imagery pretty quick.”

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