What Can Drones Do?


What Can Drones Do?
Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Drones are quickly becoming more popular and more ubiquitous. What entered the public consciousness as a tool in the War on Terror has expanded its utility to law enforcement, research, filmmaking, recreation and even delivery.

Earlier this month, the FAA proposed new rules for unmanned aviation systems or UAS’s (the technical wording for drones), which would allow anyone at least 17 years old to operate a drone, so long as they pass an aeronautical knowledge test and get a certificate from the FAA.

The rules are in their public comment phase now, but if the FAA adopts them, you could fly a 55-pound helicopter at 100 miles per hour 500 feet in the air with a process similar to getting a driver’s license.

The new rules greatly increase accessibility to UAS certificates and, as more people get access to drones, the question becomes “What can we do with them?”

Wake Forest University biologists have used them to survey forests and coal ash spills. The same group of researchers is currently using their drones to study how climate change affects Peruvian forests.

Flying DroneBut drones offer much more than simply mapping changes in the land and environment. That is why researchers from RTI International and NC State University have partnered to explore the applications of drones in other fields of science, including social science, and to direct future researchers how to use drones effectively and responsibly.

The group, led by RTI’s Joseph D. Eyerman, PhD, recently began research flights in an FAA-approved area northwest of Raleigh using a small winged drone.

One of the chief objectives of the collaboration is determining how to provide better data for surveys of developing countries. These surveys cover everything from numbers of people per home to access to clean water, the purpose being to better inform aid and development efforts.

Many of these surveys, however, rely on satellite images, especially when the locations in question are difficult to get to. But as anyone who uses Google Maps knows, satellite images often only show a rooftop. It can be difficult to get an idea of how many people live in a building or if that building is even occupied at all.

Drones may be able to help meet the need for more accurate data. Flying a drone a few hundred feet overhead and taking a series of pictures at least gives researchers some general figures like 100 or so people may live in one building while the one next door is abandoned or lots of people tend to go to this one building on Sunday morning so it might be a church.

The actual data they get is fairly general, as in they have no idea what one individual’s habits may be, but the general living arrangements of a town are extremely valuable.

Take epidemics, for example. This kind of data about where people generally congregate can help public health officials not only trace back how a disease has spread, but also where it is likely to go next based on where it has popped up already.

The same logic applies to toxic exposures. If public health officials see many exposures, they could quickly isolate the cause, so long as the exposed patients tell them where they live (the drones can’t do that). An official could reference the data and determine that all the patients got water from the same place or people on their block all tend to shop at the same store so maybe there is something wrong with the food.

Even outside of residential areas, the researchers are investigating how useful drones may be for agricultural research, search and rescue and a number of other situations.

Another very important aspect to Eyerman’s research is public concern over these research drones, and getting a sense for what people are and are not comfortable with. According to a 2014 Pew poll, 59% of Americans believe that advances in science and technology will lead to a better future but 63% believe that allowing personal and commercial drones into US airspace would be a change for the worse. The RTI and NC State researchers are looking into ways to balance these popular perceptions.

The end goal of all the test flights and discussions about what uses of drones people feel comfortable with is a series of recommended research methods. Down the road, when a scientist wants to use drones to investigate the population dynamics of a flu outbreak, for example, instead of writing his experimental methods from scratch, he could look at Eyerman’s work and have an idea how to not only use his research drones effectively to gather the data he needs but also ethically and responsibly to ensure people are comfortable with the work.

New technology always brings with it new possibilities and concerns, and drones are no different. Learning how to properly use technology can often be just as important to a scientist as the data he or she gets by using it. Eyerman’s research could, in time, inform thousands of studies with drones, done both effectively and responsibly.

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the environment in North Carolina.

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