The idea of drones flying around domestic airspace is terrifying to many Americans, so the fact that Virginia Tech has half a dozen drones, controlled by students, might be disturbing. The university’s Unmanned Systems Laboratory is one of just “63 registered domestic drone operators in the country receiving funds from the U.S. Defense [Department],” according to Virtual Town Square. Program director Kevin Kochersberger doesn’t want this initiative to fall prey to stereotypes about drones. “When people refer to drones, they immediately think of weaponized unmanned vehicles. That couldn’t be farther from what we do at the lab.”
The research being conducted at Virginia Tech is vital in exploring alternative uses for drones. The vehicles have gained notoriety for their application in war, but the truth is that drones, controversial as they may be, are a largely untapped resource for farmers and environmentalists:
Virginia Tech possesses six drones that it uses as limited-performance research aircraft. Engineering faculty and students on the ground control the aircraft with a remote and permit autonomous flight.
In addition to its work with robots and unmanned ground vehicles, Tech experiments with pilotless aircraft both to improve the technology of the platform and develop specific applications.
Improving the study of agricultural disease and the assessment and mapping of special environments, such as forests and explosion sites, are major project drivers. The work engages students and faculty, brings research dollars to the university and could lead to the creation of businesses, said Kochersberger.
Read The sky's the limit for drone research at Virginia Tech on The Virginian-Pilot.
Regardless of how the public feels about drones, Congress has mandated that unmanned aerial vehicles be integrated into civilian airspace by fall 2015. The potential for commercial drones in the next five years is extremely high, and Virginia Tech and their graduate students are positioned to be leaders in this market.
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