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U. creates curriculum to study social, ethical uses of drones

(Winston Armani/KSL-TV)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Call it "Drones 101."

Students at the University of Utah are taking classes about drones, building them, flying them and, perhaps the bigger issue, examining the problems with having so many of them in the air.

For the past two semesters, Nicolas Goller, a senior, and Raeleigh Wilkinson, a junior, and 25 other students in the U.'s Honors College have built, flown, discussed, examined and even crashed unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

"Five years ago, there weren't courses, to my knowledge, that did what we're doing, that brought together all the components," said Avery Holton, associate professor with the department of communications at the U. "We kind of saw the initial helicopters that you saw in the mall at the kiosk; it's just a toy with no other use. But attach a camera to that and suddenly it is a whole new ballgame."

The classes go through different modules that look at the legal, ethical and communications sides of drones.

Holton and Sean Lawson, also an associate professor at the department of communications at the U., developed the "Drones and Society" curriculum because the flying objects have become more mainstream with both good and bad implications.

"If the innovators and the citizens and the policymakers all have a better understanding of the technology, we can create a better future that preserves people's privacy, that is safe, but also allows for the great innovation that can potentially come from the technology," Lawson said.

Students at the University of Utah are taking classes about drones; building them, flying them, and the bigger issue perhaps, examining the problems now that there are so many of them in the air. (Photo: Winston Armani, Deseret News )
Students at the University of Utah are taking classes about drones; building them, flying them, and the bigger issue perhaps, examining the problems now that there are so many of them in the air. (Photo: Winston Armani, Deseret News )

Drones have been used in warfare for years, but consumer use is now exploding. Check out just about any big box store or a toy outlet, and the shelves are filled with drones — and that means the skies will be, too.

Equipped with cameras, drones can be very useful. In the summer of 2014, video from a drone gave geologists and engineers a safe aerial perspective of the North Salt Lake landslide, and two months ago in Hildale, search and rescuers were able to assess the damage caused by a deadly flash flood.

But there have been close calls near airports, and drones have interfered with aerial firefighting efforts. One even landed on the White House lawn. These are real-life issues that U. students are studying as drone use increases.

"I learned that the issues regarding the use of drones is very complicated," Goller said. "There are all these security concerns."

"Yeah, we really encourage our students to think about the different ways that drones can be used, both in positive and negative ways, and to think more so about the implications of those uses," Holton said.

The Drones and Society courses will be held at the U. in 2016. The classes come as the Federal Aviation Administration considers whether consumer drones need to be regulated. The agency could make a decision by the end of the year.

Retailers estimate that 1 million drones will be under the Christmas tree this season, so the skies will certainly be buzzing.

"Good luck to the FAA registering all the drones when they're everywhere," Lawson said. "You can buy a candy bar, a soda and a drone at the 7-Eleven, so these aren't going away for sure."

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Keith McCord

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