College and university requests for permission to fly drones accounted for 25% of more than 900 unmanned aircraft applications to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), despite the government's restrictions on commercial use of drones.
This summer, 29 professors from multiple institutions penned an open letter to the FAA arguing "free and open access to this technology is absolutely essential to our nation's continued leadership in aviation, to our future economy and to our long-term security."
Higher education institutions use the devices for academics, environmental research, agricultural monitoring, disaster relief, and sports filming.
For example, Kansas State University uses two-dozen drones to train students pursuing a bachelor's degree in unmanned aircraft systems flight operations. Started in 2011, the program began including classes on piloting, aviation repairs, trigonometry, psychology, and basic electronics.
University of South Florida (USF) even permits students to check out drones from the library for school-related projects. Bill Garrison, USF's dean of libraries, calls the drones a great resource for multimedia projects; he expects the program to work alongside other departments such as the global sustainability program.
Offering drones to students is part of an effort to keep the library relevant, says Garrison. "One of the things many libraries have struggled with," he says, "is how do you become a real part of the campus and not be viewed as a book warehouse?"
Other schools use the drones for researching dangerous natural disasters—such as supercell thunderstorms, which sometimes produce tornadoes.
The University of Colorado at Boulder submitted around 30 waiver requests to measure the storms via drones. Meteorologists cannot safely get close enough to gather temperature, pressure, and humidity data that could help them understand which storms are likely to result in tornadoes.
"Scientists are now trying to answer big questions about climate, about whether they can develop the capabilities for warning and mitigating for the public to be able to respond to these things," says Brian Argrow, UC-Boulder aerospace engineering professor.
Additional uses for drones include disaster response—such as following the 2013 tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma—and agricultural monitoring, such as crop dusting at the University of California-Davis (Bidwell, U.S. News and World Report, 10/10; Gallo, Wall Street Journal, 7/27; Imam, CNN, 6/23).
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