Unmanned aircraft systems are here. Proponents like Lynn Fenstermaker are making sure Nevada and its kids are ready for a high-flying future
The cacophony of a school assembly follows the first- and second-graders out of the multipurpose room, back to their homerooms at Sandy Searles Miller Elementary School. A handful of older students stays behind; they sit cross-legged in a semi-circle facing Lynn Fenstermaker, a Desert Research Institute scientist seated on the stage where she’d just given a school-wide presentation about unmanned aircraft systems, her preferred term for drones. These select fifth-graders earned special Q&A time with Fenstermaker by opting to do their capstone projects on subjects in which she has expertise.
Only one student asks a question — “What are drones made of?” — that could qualify as basic. Others wonder whether an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, can be powered by solar energy, how high-frequency radar affects its signal and what impact the technology is having on climate change research. Dominic Sanchez, who wants to be a robotics inventor when he grows up, engages Fenstermaker in a conversation about the software that runs the cameras and video recorders mounted on DRI’s 5-foot-long, 15-pound radio-controlled helicopter, which sits nearby on the stage.
An uneducated bystander might be shocked at the kids’ familiarity with a technology most Las Vegans have only recently begun to read about in the news. But Fenstermaker, a mild-mannered Pennsylvania native with short brown hair, takes it in stride. She’s done dozens of similar presentations as part of DRI’s community outreach, and she participated in a UNLV mentoring program for local girls until funding cuts put an end to it. So she knows how comfortable kids are with technology, especially kids like these, who attend a STEM-focused magnet school.
“Typically, as technology advances, it goes from slow and expensive to fast and more affordable,” she says, answering a question about what developers have learned about drones over time. “Prototypes are an important part of this process. If you go on YouTube and look up the X-47B, you’ll see one of the Navy’s first models.”
The kids can see thousands of videos about drones on the Internet, or even buy one there. Fenstermaker notes that Amazon sells quad-copters; that’s the small, four-rotor model often encircled by a bumper-band to prevent collisions. It’s the type Sandy Miller got for its students’ experimentation. With Nevada vying to be a major player in the drone industry, educational institutions are ramping up to prepare the future developers and technicians who will populate labs and factories; hence, Fenstermaker’s presentations.
Although drones brought her and the kids together today, a gap separates where she is now and where they’ll be at her age. This gap will be filled by answers to the profuse questions the technology is raising: What should and shouldn’t people do with it? How should it be controlled, and by whom? Can the U.S. sort out the ethical, legal and privacy issues in a way that allows Dominic Sanchez and his classmates to thrive, yet still protects them?
Up in the air
Within view of Frenchman Flat, where the government detonated 14 atomic weapons from 1951 to 1962, UNLV Assistant Director of Research Infrastructure Eric Knight starts up DRI’s radio-controlled helicopter by pulling a cord, lawnmower-style. He steps back several yards, getting in position at Fenstermaker’s left, and slowly revs up the two-stroke engine, causing the rotors to whip into a rattling hum.
For a moment it looks like the miniature aircraft is stuck to the gravel road, then suddenly, it’s in the air. Knight and Fenstermaker work like one two-headed, four-armed unit: he with both hands on the controls and eyes on the aircraft; she with one hand on the dashboard, the other on the camera’s shutter toggle switch and eyes darting around, watching for birds, insects, power lines — anything that might interfere with the flight.
“Twenty feet, 40 feet, 60 feet,” she announces as the chopper rises. When it reaches 160 feet above ground level, she hits the toggle switch to snap a picture.
What she’s photographing strikes an ironic contrast with the surrounding area. On the grounds formerly used for testing weapons of mass destruction, about an hour north of Las Vegas, Fenstermaker and her team have for a decade been doing their part to save the world — studying the potential effects of climate change on the desert, and vice versa. Their work at the Nevada Desert FACE (free-air CO2 enrichment) Facility has uncovered new information about how ecosystems absorb or shed carbon dioxide as it increases in the atmosphere. Results of their work have recently made national headlines.
Fenstermaker, the public face of DRI’s drone program, became a UAS expert by accident. As a plant physiologist, she has always used remote sensing to test environmental stressors on native flora. She’s worked with everything from cameras to satellites, but nothing other than a drone would work on this particular project. Its 100-plus plots, each 14 meters square, contain various experiments that had to be photographed with a multispectral camera from a (more-or-less) stationary bird’s-eye view, in high enough resolution to allow data analysis. Blimps cast shadows, bob around and require expensive gas. Fixed-wing aircraft fly over, rather than hover, making them better for surveying or shooting video. Knight had experience with radio-controlled (RC) hobby planes and the ability to build just about anything mechanical, Fenstermaker says, so she got him on her team and had him build their first copter.
That was 2004, when flying a drone was relatively simple, she recalls. The pair followed the rules set for RC hobbyists: Keep the altitude below 400 feet; stay in designated open air space or posted areas; maintain a certain distance from airports; and follow the guidelines set by the Academy of Model Aircraft.
Things changed in 2008, when the Federal Aviation Administration, responding to pressure from pilots and airports, regulated unmanned aircraft being used for commercial, public or research purposes. They created three classes of aircraft, each with its own set of rules. Fenstermaker had to submit advance detailed flight plans, including safety measures, such as sense-and-avoid strategies and what her team would do in case of a lost data link. The process got even more onerous in 2013, when the FAA began requiring pilot certificates of authorization, entailing costly ground school, flight tests and physical exams for both the pilot and observer, as well as a pilot’s license for the pilot.
Not everyone complies as conscientiously as Fenstermaker and Knight, who have no choice, being from public institutions. Many private and commercial drone users flout the rules, are unaware of them or believe they’re still the same as for RC hobbyists. In 2011, the FAA fined self-proclaimed aerial anarchist Raphael Pirker $10,000 for flying a Styrofoam drone in what the administration deemed an unsafe manner. Pirker was shooting video for an ad at the University of Virginia. The case, which is still pending, will set an important precedent for commercial drone regulation.
Fenstermaker hopes the rules will become less onerous, but, having seen firsthand the power of an 800 RPM rotor, she also hopes that the FAA and FTC — which respectively regulate airspace and uses of media — can tame the increasingly Wild West of drones. In September, a New York man partially decapitated and killed himself while flying a remote-controlled helicopter with his father.
“We need training,” Fenstermaker says, “but we need different training than what we’re getting. The best flight training for small UASs is simulator training on a computer. Knowledge training should include information on regulations and safety.”
The six test sites that the FAA has designated for UAS research are meant to address the problems by integrating drones with the current National Airspace System. Nevada is one of the sites, and the only one that’s a state (others are organizations and universities). Announcing the win last December, Gov. Brian Sandoval noted our considerable advantage over the other sites: giant swaths of regulated airspace. Large-scale projects will be able to use Nevada’s seven designated airports and ranges without bumping up against competitors, making us a desirable location.
And, Sandoval pointed out, pulling together in support of the development are both private and public entities — including schools. Both UNLV and UNR are starting UAS minors; Rancho High School and Leavitt Middle School provide training for small UAS. But the awareness starts in elementary school, at Sandy Miller.
Unmanned aircraft systems are but one of many technologies students are learning at Sandy Miller. This semester, drones figured into a school-wide Genghis Khan-themed project that drew on the work of U.C. San Diego researcher Albert Yu-Min Lin to teach civics, culture, geography and history, as well as science. Besides Fenstermaker and Lin, who deployed UASs in the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb in China, drone specialists from Creech Air Force Base also visited to school to talk about what they do.
The experience educated more than just the students.
“One thing we planned to do was fly our own UAS outside,” says Sharon Pearson, Sandy Miller’s magnet theme coordinator. “When Lynn told us we couldn’t because we were too close to the airport, the kids were disappointed.”
Teachers turned the letdown into a teachable moment, bringing up the idea of privacy and government regulations. They talked to kids about having drones buzzing over their backyards and asked if they’d want someone they didn’t know videotaping them from overhead. They definitely did not, Pearson says.
Staff tried to cover all the technology’s uses without dwelling on or stigmatizing any particular aspect. With drones in the news, Pearson says, many students are aware of their controversial military uses, but they’re too young to engage in a discussion about the ethics of remote-controlled airstrikes. After observing their evolving thought process for more than two months, though, she’s confident they’ll be responsible users. She also believes drones will be commonplace; one boy wanted to bring his own from home.
With drones creeping into the mainstream (drone selfies have popped up on Twitter lately) come the familiar fears of invasion and inescapability. We’re already widely watched by security and traffic cameras, satellites and other people’s phones. And apps make it possible to instantly post images of all kinds online. It’s time, Fenstermaker says, to look at privacy across the spectrum of media — not just drones — figure out how to protect consumers and start enforcing the rules.
Still, she brings a scientist’s perspective to the panic:
“We’re in the phase that’s like a gold rush. People are saying, ‘Let’s do this, and this, and this.’ But UASs won’t be good for everything. Wildfire fighting? Yes. Telemedicine? Yes. But Amazon won’t be flying quad-copters around Vegas dropping packages on people’s porches. It’s just not practical or a safe use of the airspace. Eventually the rush will level off and decline, and it will be just another tool, among many.”