Think flying robots and soaring chunks of metal sound a little too sci-fi for The Green? Think again. The university’s electrical engineering department has added drone technology to their undergraduate research program.
The research team, led by Electrical Engineering Professor Kenneth Barner, aims to show off some of its accomplishments by hosting a series of drone programming competitions throughout the spring semester.
William Beardell, a junior electrical engineering major, was referred to Barner after inquiring about research opportunities for the summer of 2016.
Beardell said drones are a promising subject for study, and he has always been intrigued by more primitive drone technology like remote-control helicopters.
“Drones are definitely a growing area of research right now,” he added.
His initial work under Barner involved working on ways to better capture audio recording using drones, a task that is often complicated by the constant noise of the device itself.
This past winter, Beardell and his colleagues moved on to working with drones to capture high-quality video.
Sean Nelan and Cooper Hurley, both junior electrical engineering majors, are also part of Barner’s research team. They found out about the drone projects through Beardell, a mutual friend.
Nelan said his engineering classes made him eager for the opportunity to apply what he was learning to some real technology.
“It’s another way of interfacing with new technologies and robotics,” he said.
For their research work, Nelan, Beardell and Hurley pilot the drones around the area to capture still images or videos of the landscape. Later, they use the media they have gathered to put together a three-dimensional model of the area from drone’s survey.
The drones the students use for the research are provided by the engineering department through Barner.
Hurley said the 3-D reconstruction aspect of their work has been difficult at times because of the large quantity of data they collect from the drones.
“We ran into an issue with computing power,” Hurley said. “It takes a lot of computational attention to handle all of these images.”
Part of the project involves discussing the possible applications of such advanced drone capabilities, such as use for security or surveillance purposes.
Beardell explained that a drone could theoretically be given a flight path and programmed with what the landscape should look like. Then, if something in the 3-D reconstruction didn’t match what the drone expects to see, it would indicate some sort of abnormality.
“If there was something bad going on, it would detect it,” Beardell explained.
He added that drones could be used to monitor large scale projects like solar panels to pinpoint damage without the need for a human inspection.
The idea of drones being used for constant surveillance is a controversial topic that delves into the moral complications of developing technology.
Thomas Powers, an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy, said the new ability of drones to capture high-quality images creates ethical questions.
“Many people assume they have this realm or sphere of privacy, and this is a new way to invade it,” Powers said.
What makes drones different from earlier technologies, Powers said, is their ability to navigate where humans and other past technologies cannot.
Powers added that it is the future modifications to drones that may create a larger issue if drones become much smaller in size.
“It may well be the case that our privacy is being invaded and we don’t even know it,” he said.
Though it is certain whether such technology would ever come to light, Powers said concerns of this variety begin now.
“People are worrying about it now because if you want them to have any sort of restriction, you have to think about them before they’re being built,” he said.
Powers does agree that smarter surveillance in general would be beneficial, especially around campus, where surveillance equipment can only do so much.
“People might feel safer, law enforcement officials might have more success, but at the same time it would unnerve some people a little bit because then, in principle, every place is open for surveillance,” Powers explained.
To Nelan and Hurley, using drones for security purposes is a logical next step.
“I don’t personally have a problem with it, I think it could be a good thing, but I know a lot of people are scared of their privacy being invaded,” Hurley said.
Besides the technical drone studies, the team of three is also planning a series of drone events and competitions on campus for the spring semester. The events will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the electrical and computer engineering department; the main event will take place in May.
“There is going to be a barbecue, drones flying around on the Green — the idea is to bring the engineering department together to work on a single project that’s fun for them,” Nelan said.
Hurley explained that teams participating in the competition would be given a task to fulfill at each event using a basic drone provided by the engineering department.
The final challenge will include a three-dimensional course designed by Hurley, Nelan and Beardell, through which competitors will have to navigate their drone.
The event will give engineering students a chance to showcase what they have learned in their classes while piloting some impressive drones.
“Straight up, the coolest thing is flying them around,” Beardell said.