With online retailer Amazon announcing its intentions to use unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – to deliver packages to customers’ homes within the next five years, experts at West Virginia University are hoping the attention drawn to the devices will help accelerate their use.
Marcello Napolitano, mechanical and aerospace professor in WVU’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, has been researching drones for multiple projects and started the drone program at WVU about 20 years ago.
“It’s a very gutsy move for Amazon, and I hope now that the corporate world is more interested in using unmanned aerial vehicles that it will move the conversation forward as far as regulations for these drones go,” he said.
“The capabilities of these unmanned aerial vehicles are incredible,” Napolitano said. “With some added attention, the possibilities are endless.”
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a statement recently that he wants “to explore the potential economic benefits of unmanned vehicles in our airspace as well as the potential risks they
may create.” He noted that he plans to hold a hearing early next year to address the economic opportunities and safety standards.
Paul Kinder, a research scientist with the WVU Natural Resource Analysis Center, said the Center has been using manned aircrafts for several years to map natural resources around the state — from coal to oil and gas to wildlife — and now is exploring drone-based technologies.
“We are working to better understand the dynamics of water temperatures in mountain streams that have trout. High temperatures are lethal to trout, but with a drone and thermal sensor, we can map surface water temperatures and identify danger zones of warming as well as areas where springs and ground water offer cooler temperatures as refuge to trout especially in the summer months,” Kinder said.
“Knowing character of stream temperatures through drone-based mapping helps us determine areas in most need of stream and riparian vegetation restoration. Much like in night-vision goggles, warmer areas of the stream show up as white while cooler areas are darker.”
“From there, we can determine how to fix certain areas,” he said.
Other natural resource and wildlife applications include the tracking of black bear and deer populations without imposing on people’s privacy, he said.
The ability to fly unmanned aircraft vehicles could expand the research the Center is able to do. While privacy is a concern with drones — equipped with sensors, cameras and video capabilities — Kinder said the areas the Center interested in are more rural so the drones pose less of a threat.