Students fly drones indoors in new five-week class

The FAA cannot regulate the use drones of indoors.

On Friday, 15 MU students — 11 undergraduates and four graduate students — will begin to learn how to fly drones.

This is part of the curriculum for a new, five-week class titled “Introduction to Drone Issues, Applications and Flight: for Student Researchers, Entrepreneurs, Educators and Communicators.”

The course is split into two parts: a Tuesday lecture on MU’s main campus and a Friday lab at the Trowbridge Livestock Center. It’s administered through the Science and Agricultural Journalism Program, but the class is open to all majors.

“The neat thing is there’s interest,” said Bill Allen, assistant professor of science journalism. “There’s interest from students in a lot of different majors ranging from journalism to ag-economics, ag-business management, architecture, plant science and biology.”

Spring 2014 marks the inaugural semester for this course on drones, but it’s not the first time MU has offered a course on drones.

The Missouri Drone Journalism program ran a three-credit-hour course last spring.

The course, titled Science Investigative Reporting: Drones, was cross-listed in journalism and run by the Science and Agricultural Journalism Program, which is housed in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The nine students enrolled in that course produced journalistic stories using drones, known to some by the technical name sUAS, or a small unmanned aircraft system.

KBIA published five of the six stories produced by the students.

Allen said that class was slated to run again last fall, but it got pulled after MU received a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration over the summer that told the university not to fly drones.

The letter stated that MU’s Drone Journalism Program was “operating a UAS without proper authorization.”

But indoor flying is still legal, Allen said.

“We can’t fly outdoors because of FAA regulations,” Allen said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t fly indoors. It’s not as easy, but we can do it.”

In Allen’s class, which is not affiliated with the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, students will sign up for Friday lab sessions, and he and a teaching assistant will administer 30-minute flying lessons to students individually and in pairs.

“That’s part of our job here at the university to teach people the great ideas, how to be a thinking citizen and all those other things, but also give them a chance to be prepared for the advent of a new technology,” Allen said.

Sally French, a recent MU graduate and former Maneater staffer who took the drone reporting class last spring, said flying drones successfully takes practice.

“Drones are a bit like playing a videogame,” French said. “It’s sort of hard to get a feel for the controls unless you have that dexterity in your fingers and hand-eye coordination.”

The drones are battery-operated, and they weigh about five pounds. Allen said each one costs about $500, and that includes the basic body, a battery and propellers. He said each drone has an on-board computer, a GPS system and a gyro-compass system, which helps keep the device stable. The drones can also support other add-ons, including a GoPro camera to take pictures from the air.

Allen said the course developed because CAFNR faculty expressed an interest in teaching students how to fly drones and how to understand their practical use in fields of science, agriculture and business.

“Our students ought to at least have an introduction to them,” Allen said. “This course introduces them to a lot of the issues surrounding drones like legal issues and regulatory issues, as well as get them thinking about how they can be applied in different fields.”

He said the FAA opening up drone use for commercial and research purposes has the potential to generate a lot of new economic activity, especially in fields of agriculture and business, and he wants his students to be prepared for that.

“This technology is probably going to create some companies and some jobs and make people some money,” Allen said. “Our students ought to be positioned to capitalize on that.”

French said learning about drones can provide students with useful information on a newly evolving technology.

She cited drone use in a variety of fields, including applications in plant science, terrain mapping, and search and rescue. She also cited their economic efficiency and usefulness for reaching dangerous or far-off locations.

“I think anyone should try (learning about drones),” French said. “It’s an emerging field. Right now they’re this novel thing. I think 20 years from now they’ll be the norm.”

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