Drones in flight above UW campus for new class

UW-Madison students recently got some hands-on experience with flying drones on campus as part of a new summer class.

Of the 10 students in “Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” only one had ever flown a drone before yesterday morning. Each had the chance to test out the sleek white drones at UW-Madison’s new recreational center, sending the buzzing machines on stable flight paths high above the turf field.

The flights marked the accomplishment of getting certified to operate drones for commercial purposes, ending the first half of the course. The students’ midterm exam last week took the form of a Federal Aviation Administration-sanctioned test.

Yesterday’s exhibition was only possible because of a recent rule change by UW-Madison, allowing drones on campus for certain purposes. Student organizations as well as individual students, faculty, staff, contractors and other university affiliates can all apply to be approved for drone flights.

Since the end of May, students in the introductory course had been getting the basics of how to use the technology safely, minimizing risks to themselves and others and learning about complex flight regulations.

In the second part of the course, students will dive into real-world applications of drones, learning how to use the data they capture in many different ways. They will put that understanding to work in a final project meant to explore various industry uses.

But leveraging drone technology in industry is hardly a new concept, according to Vladimir Bouriakov, 24, a participant in the class and recent graduate of UW-Madison. He’s competed in several robotics competitions and plays a role in BadgerLoop, a student team working on a magnetic levitation vehicle for the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.

For the next part of the course, he said he wants to use drones to capture images which would then be stitched together using specialized programs, incorporating rangefinder data to create three-dimensional models of unique spaces.

“So you could hypothetically fly a drone around with that sensor onboard and then get a 3D model of say, New York City, and then feed that into a video game, and then you have a scale, virtual reality model of New York City,” Bouriakov told WisBusiness.com. “And architects do this for looking at buildings or surveying landscapes. … I mean, it was being done like five years ago.”

The class is being taught by Chris Johnson, director of the UW Flight Lab in Industrial & Systems Engineering, and a specialist in drones.

His students got to practice with two DJI Phantom 4 drones. DJI, a Chinese company, commands most of the global market share for unmanned aircraft systems.

The small drones — only a little bigger than the average laptop — are equipped with four spinning propellor blades, landing gear and a camera which can record live video while the vehicle is moving through the air. With four batteries per drones, each has approximately two hours of flight time per session, Johnson said.

On this model, the camera can only swivel up and down, because the landing gear restricts the view, according to Bouriakov. On other, larger models, landing gear can be flipped up out of the way, allowing the camera to swivel 360 degrees independently of the drone’s movement, he added.

Possibilities for drone use are certainly diverse. The military already uses drones for a variety of purposes, and hobbyist drone pilots are becoming an increasingly common sight across the country. Even some drug smugglers are using them to sneak shipments over national borders and into prisons, according to numerous news reports.

NASA has used them for tracking storms all over the world; the U.S. Geological Service uses them to chart territory; and some mapping apps like OpenStreetMap are incorporating crowd-sourced drone user data.

“Farmers use it to figure out where’s there’s weeds, or what needs more fertilizer. … Applications are limitless, and there’s going to be more of them,” Bouriakov said. “It’s just a really hot field to get into,”

Though the first group to take the class was small, Johnson says he expects up to 50 students in the fall due to rising interest in the technology.

Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still, who also attended yesterday’s event, spoke to the steadily growing number of economic applications for drones, saying “if you can imagine it, it can probably be done.”

For another student, Karen Singer, 52, the course has provided some useful takeaways. She says she can now read an aviation map — so she knows where she can fly and where she can’t — and also has a working understanding of how to operate a drone safely.

She’s currently going for a bachelor’s degree in fine art after having served in the military for 26 years, and plans to use drones to film athletic events such as those staged by UW-Madison’s bike racing club, of which she is a member.

“You can outfit the drone with so many different possibilities on filming that it’s just, really, super exciting, especially from an art standpoint and a film standpoint,” she said. “We don’t have to worry about rocks, about terrain, about small hills or mountains any more. It’s the last invasion into nature — but you know, we’ve been doing that with bicycles for a while.”

–By Alex Moe