The Future Belongs to Flying Robots

The once-small community of drone hobbyists has transformed into a worldwide phenomenon. In 2016 especially, significant technology improvements and regulatory clarity have paved the way for even more dramatic changes in the coming years.

Among the biggest adopters of drones, and experimenters with them, have been universities. As the director of the University of California system’s Center of Excellence on Unmanned Aircraft System Safety – effectively the drone headquarters of our whole 10-campus system – I have an excellent view of the drone industry’s past, present, and future.

The truly surprising details are about how wide and diverse a range of purposes drones are serving on our campuses – and what’s coming next. As we begin exploring what drones can do, and identifying what social and commercial uses they might serve, the work provides a glimpse into the future of drone flight across the country, and throughout our economy.

Engineering Research

Drones have only recently reached the commercial mainstream. However, university engineering departments have been designing and building them for decades. For years, engineering students, for instance, have studied the advanced control algorithms that keep drones flying level and straight. Their work has helped bring us to the point where drones are even available for sale in toy stores.

It is no surprise that our engineers are still working on UAVs and related technology such as sensors, automation, and innovative platforms. Some introductory engineering classes involve students building and flying drones; more advanced students learn about flight dynamics and algorithms that help drones stay aloft.

In recent years, though, our engineering departments are focusing less on building the aircraft and more on improving safety, navigation and ability to carry equipment that allows drones to help with different tasks.

For example, researchers are developing navigation systems that don’t rely on GPS satellites. This could help allow drones to navigate autonomously inside buildings, in deep canyons, underground or other places where GPS signals are unavailable or unreliable. Whether delivering packages to remote locations or handling emergency tasks in hazardous conditions, this type of capability could significantly expand drones’ usefulness.

Another research group is working on ways for drones to help detect gas leaks from oil pipelines. With millions of miles of pipelines across the country, that is a monumental task. Attaching methane-sniffing sensors to drones could make it much easier: Autonomous drones could fly the routes of every pipeline nearly constantly, registering the location and volume of leaks, and alerting repair and cleanup crews.

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