The public hates ‘drones.’ When most people think of them, they think of military air strikes. I challenge you instead to think of their many other uses. Most drones today are not being used as weapons of war, but for beneficial purposes in our society. These modern marvels have become the long-distance eyes, ears and hands of peaceful logistics, doing things we would rather not have people doing.

Before we note the many good things these technological breakthroughs are accomplishing, their name is a misnomer, so let me give you a little of the backstory. The Old English word ‘drone’ originally referred to the male honeybee, whose purpose is to mate with the queen bee. In the 1930s, the British created a very successful radio-controlled aircraft for target practice called the ‘queen bee.’ By some convoluted path, queen bee has morphed into drone, which the military used for flying targets but is now recognized as the word for pilotless aircraft. A drone is really a flying robot, but more precisely it is an unmanned system, and these unmanned systems offer revolutionary change for many industries both in the air and on the ground. 

Regardless of what we call them, it’s imperative that we train minds to harness this advancing technology.

A Farmer’s Friend
Consider the farming industry. With unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), farmers can now see if their irrigation systems are working or how their crops are growing. A 20-percent increase in crop yield can be achieved by simply replanting areas the UAV noted are not growing. Sophisticated sensors can even report what soil nutrients are missing or the moisture content allowing farmers to make critical decisions about where and when to fertilize, plant or water. Other unmanned systems even allow controlling tractors and combines with GPS.

Unmanned systems are becoming valuable in the mining industry, too, turning the mining sector into an emerging frontier for the new technology. Both flying and on-the-ground robotics have helped the industry find cheaper and safer ways to map deposits and explore for minerals via remote control. A real value of these unmanned systems is they can be a less invasive and safer method of exploration. Data recorded by unmanned systems can be used to produce models of areas of interest, and rocks can be tested instead of digging large trenches that later need to be backfilled. 

A useful tool for firefighters, UAVs are especially helpful to those putting out wildfires. Not only are these aircraft being used to spot the fire and track its movement, they can actually be used to fight fires as well, ultimately keeping people out of harm’s way. Equipped with infrared sensors, UAVs can easily penetrate walls of smoke to relay information about the size of the blaze.

The technology also has great potential for emergency responders. A live video feed from a UAV can show emergency workers where it is safe to set up operations, help locate survivors or track the level of flood waters.

Training Minds to Work With Unmanned Systems
The technology is moving forward and uses for unmanned systems continue to expand. There are now applications for traffic, inspecting pipelines and transmission lines, and conducting border surveillance and other law enforcement work. While the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet developed regulations for commercial UAVs, they are expected by 2016. 

Training more minds to work with unmanned systems will ensure this technology is used to its full potential. That’s why this fall, Indiana State University will begin offering the state’s first – and only the fourth in the country – four-year Bachelor of Science degree in unmanned systems. Students will study science, technology and engineering, and not only be equipped to work in the world of UAVs, but also in robotic systems that do not fly. Students will learn how to apply unmanned systems technologies to solve problems in a wide range of industries.

This burgeoning field is expected to grow from a $3 billion industry in 2013 to $110 billion in 2025 producing 110,000 new jobs in the next 10 years.

This is an exciting time in the development of unmanned systems that offers us a whole new way of looking at a life-altering technology. We are on the leading edge of an era comparable to the invention of the automobile over a hundred years ago that changed transportation forever. The challenge for us is to embrace the possible benefits and unlimited potential for unmanned systems. Indiana State’s new degree in this field will help launch young people on an exciting career path where the sky is no longer the limit.

Dr. Richard Baker is director of Indiana State University’s Center for Unmanned Systems. He will be a speaker at this year’s Indiana Logistics Summit.

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