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UH-Hilo developing drone research curriculum

Updated: 
February 25, 2014 - 5:35am

Earlier this month, five men stood outside of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, their gaze locked on what resembled a miniature spaceship hovering above their heads.

The object: a remotely piloted aircraft, or drone. It’s implications: many.

“Our FAA forecast estimates that we can expect 7,500 small unmanned aircraft in our national airspace in the next five years, provided the regulations are in place to handle them,” said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, in a speech.

Recently, the FAA named Hawaii as one of six drone research sites in America, and with UH-Hilo working to establish remotely piloted aircrafts as an area of study, the Big Island could become a center for drone research as soon as next year.

The university, working in conjunction with the proposed Hilo International Flight Training Center, is developing a degree in aeronautical science, with training following three tracks: fixed wing professional pilots, fixed wing flight education pilots and remotely piloted aircrafts.

But first they’ll need $450,000 from the state to fund the positions needed for next year.

Ray Bedard, specialist faculty at UH-Hilo who was hired to spearhead the project, said the department has nothing but good intentions for the controversial technology.

“We want to teach people the right way to use these machines,” he said. “How do we take advantage of the technology to make our lives better?”

Currently researchers at the university use drone technology to conduct agricultural assessments, perform data analysis and mapping.

Nick Turner, a geospatial analyst at the university, builds and uses unmanned aircraft on the Big Island to survey invasive species in tropical forests. He also gathers aerial footage of banana crops affected by the banana bunchy top virus, and most recently journeyed to the Philippines to assess damage caused by Typhoon Yolanda that was used by the Red Cross and the World Bank for relief efforts.

It’s the use of the technology in this manner that has Turner excited for the proposed program.

“What I’m really excited about is the data we can collect and the imagery and what you can do with it. The possibilities are really exciting,” he said.

They’ll also be working on research to make the objects autonomous.

“The model I want to build is where we have one of these little machines that can be preprogramed to actually survey the fields once a month,” Bedard said. “And that data gets beamed back to UH-Hilo and gets analyzed by UH-Hilo and gets reported back to the farmers once a month.”

Bedard said eventually the idea is that local farmers could use the services in exchange for a fee.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman said it’s the advancement of the technology in such a manner that has him weighing both the pros and cons of the developing industry.

“There are some really exciting beneficial uses, scanning fields, analyzing invasive species in the forest,” he said. “But of course, there are the less benevolent possible users, and it’s important we keep the project safe from the beginning.”

Lawmakers are currently analyzing bills that aim to protect people’s rights to privacy. Senate Bill 2608SD1 went before the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor last week. If passed, the bill would make it illegal for police to use drones to monitor citizens without a warrant, and also provides restriction on use of unmanned aerial vehicles for the purpose trespassing.

Stephen Rayleigh, who worked with Bedard at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., said it’s important the public understands the technology and what it’s being used for.

“Nobody is really worried about the college getting UAVs, they’re worried that the partners that they have, you know, the law enforcement agencies, might have access to a tool that they might take advantage of, and nobody says they will, but the public needs to be aware of what tools we have at our disposal,” he said.

Bedard said researchers at the university will be required to be transparent with data they collect, and that the program isn’t aimed at being invasive.

“We’re way too busy doing some really cool stuff to peak into other people’s backyard,” he said.

The proposed flight training center at Hilo International Airport will work with both UH-Hilo and Hawaii Community College.

The degree at UH-Hilo would require eight semesters and students could complete them within 2.5 years. Flight revenue generated from each student has been estimated to be $13,923, with the school operating at a more than $200,000 loss its first year.

Bedard estimates the school could be bringing in more than $1.6 million in revenue by the 2019-20 academic year.

Hawaii Community College could begin its associate degree in applied science in helicopter operations with 10 students in spring 2016. The degree would require five semesters of classes, totalling 1.5 years of study.

Flight revenue of $13,934 would be generated per student at HCC, with the program losing $62,000 its first year. From there, revenue would grow to $1.455 million by the 2019-20 academic year.

Email Megan Moseley at mmoseley@hawaiitribune-herald.com.