MOUNT VERNON — When hearing the word ‘drone’ many are reminded of the unmanned aircraft systems used by the military overseas or domestic surveillance concerns.
But the Mount Vernon High School’s award-winning Robotics Club, which has 21 members, is hoping to use the unmanned aircraft technology in a positive way for promoting robotics, education and community outreach.
Richard Scearce, the robotics club’s coach and mentor, said the project came to fruition when he and other students discussed their interests in aviation and airplanes. Though the group initially intended to build a drone over the summer, the venture proved expensive and Scearce purchased a drone instead.
Since then, the students have made modifications to the 1 pound, 14-by-16-inch UAV — like adding a GoPro camera and longer-lasting battery — and have been learning how to fly it.
“These kids can now fly it pretty good and boy, they sure took to it just like a duck to water because of their video game skills,” Scearce said, adding the UAS — unmanned aircraft system — can also be controlled with a smartphone or tablet.
Scearce said he’s working on some kind of system to train interested students to fly the drone, where they will have to log their flying time to become a ‘certified’ pilot for the club.
Outside their robotics lab, the group hopes to use the drone to take aerial footage of their high school football team’s scrimmages so the coach can analyze the video and help the team improve line-blocking and pass coverage. The club has already done a few test-flights at a nearby playground, as well as over the high school’s scrimmage field.
Scearce said he has also reached out to area-farmers about using the drone to help with crop inspection and Mount Vernon Police Chief Mark Winder about using the drone to take footage of traffic driving through the town’s roundabouts on Highway 30 so they could be displayed on the city’s website for the public to view.
Expansion of the industry
With anticipated expansion of drone technology, Scearce said he expects many of the students he works with today may one day find themselves furthering their education in engineering, or a different UAS-related field.
Robert Banwart, a senior who has been in the robotics club his entire high school career, said he’s thoroughly enjoyed working with the drone so far.
“I have enjoyed it immensely because I’m flying a drone,” Banwart said, who one day hopes to become a mechanical or electrical engineer, said. “We were trying to fly it in the playground the other day, and while that didn’t work as well as we hoped, it was incredibly fun because you’re watching it go — it’s almost like a video game — and then you realize that you’re actually flying it.”
Drew Keller, a senior and three-year member of the club, said he’s been practicing piloting the drone for the last few weeks. The 18-year-old said his involvement in the club has motivated him to pursue an education in engineering after high school. One day, he said he might even want to fly drones for a living.
“Everybody seems to be interested in it (the drone) and although it does have a reputation among a lot of people as being something that’s kind of evil — you know, when they use the word drone in a negative way as people can use them to invade privacy — we want to show that, like any technology, it can be misused but it can also be used to help,” Scearce said.
As the Federal Aviation Administration works to safely integrate UAS’ into the national airspace by 2015 — as required by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 — interest in drone use has continued to expand.
But as the technology rapidly advances — with drones getting smaller, more affordable and more vigorous in terms of their capabilities — Ben Stone, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, said legislation limiting drone use has hardly kept up, posing a multi-faceted privacy risk.
“When you take data from some government drone activity and put that data in with license plate readers and driver’s license data regarding facial recognition technology and credit card data — once you get databases interacting — that’s when it really becomes a serious potential invasion of one’s privacy,” Stone said.
“I think the thing that really should give people concern is that there is a very well-funded industry that has an interest in proliferating drones all over the country,” he said.
Concerns, like those described by Stone, have led to some moves toward legislation that aims to restrict or ban drone-use in the state.
After a citizen-initiated petition put the issue before the City Council earlier this year, Iowa City adopted what may have been a first-in-the-nation law to ban drones as well as traffic-enforcement cameras and most uses of license plate readers.
There’s also a bill in the Iowa Legislature, SF 276, that aims to ban the use of drones for everything except search and rescue operations and natural disasters. Introduced in Feb. 2013, the bill would also prohibit a state or local law enforcement agency from using a weaponized drone under any circumstances. That bill did not move out of subcommittee during the last legislative session.
Acknowledging that some people would like to have the technology outlawed, Scearce said most people he’s discussed the project with are excited, adding he hopes the club’s drone use will be able to shed some light on how drones can be used positively, in places where humans can’t go without risk – like oil rig inspections or during a nuclear meltdown.
“I think more realistically they’re going to be used for good purposes and used in places where it’s unsafe for humans to go,” Scearce said.