Whether you call them “drones” or “UAS” (unmanned aircraft systems), pilotless aircraft are coming to an airspace near you, and not in some distant sci-fi future. In fact, unmanned aircraft were developed during World War I, when the military recognized the potential of flying “aerial torpedoes” into enemy territory. UAS have become an increasingly important part of the modern arsenal over the past 30 years—not just in combat, but for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering as well. The debate over their use—and potential misuse—has gotten more heated as it becomes clear that drones are here to stay, and not just in war zones.

Peacetime uses for drones could well eclipse their utilization in the battlefield. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that by 2018, 7,500 drones will be darting through U.S. airspace like metallic dragonflies, changing the way we do business, maintain our infrastructure, foster public health, and enhance disaster preparedness, and potentially driving a new technology revolution.

Rutgers is likely to be at the forefront of that revolution. Students and faculty at the university are already building and studying drones, and last year the FAA announced that New Jersey would be one of six test sites for domestic drones in a consortium known as the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. To find out more about the future of UAS, and Rutgers’ place in it, we spoke with Thomas Farris, dean of the School of Engineering, and Javier Diez, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the school.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What will Rutgers’ role be in the testing of domestic drones?
THOMAS FARRIS: New Jersey is part of a three-state consortium that also includes Maryland and Virginia, as one of six sites established by the FAA in order to collect data to assist with the embedding of unmanned air systems into the national airspace. There will be test flights done in all three states, with Rutgers leading a consortium of New Jersey universities and industry aimed at researching unmanned air systems. In fact, there are a lot of faculty and students at Rutgers who are already working on many different aspects of UAS. Researchers in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences are studying the application of UAS for agriculture in observing crops and applying fertilizer.
JAVIER DIEZ: A group of students from the School of Engineering recently built their own UAS, which they entered in the 2014 Student Unmanned Air Systems Competition sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). Out of 48 teams from around the world, our students placed seventh.

RM: Where will testing take place?
JD: Right now, most of our work is being done in labs. The next step will be flying on site.
TF: We’ve identified test ranges—the FAA term for airspace—over southern New Jersey and the Atlantic Ocean that provide a safe environment in which to conduct gradual flight operations and integration of UAS into the National Airspace System. The test ranges include launch and recovery sites, and they vary in altitude, size, geography, and density of flight operations.

RM: Will safety be an issue?
TF: For our testing, Rutgers will work with local officials to keep them abreast of the proposed flying activity. Regard­ing UAS in general, commercial flight is the safest mode of travel, and we anticipate a very safe operation of UAS as well.

RM: For what will domestic drones be used?
TF: There are an enormous number of possible uses. We’re planning a demonstration using UAS to inspect bridges. Rather than have a dangerous manned inspection, we can use UAS to do the job. That’s just one example. There’s a lot of interest in using UAS to inspect the power grid and oil and gas pipe­lines, to survey storm damage, to spray for mosquitoes, and to help avoid potential terrorist attacks.

RM: Will there be roles for business?
TF: Many. The government authorities will contract out the inspections and surveillance to private corporations.

RM: Will UAS be available to individuals?
TF: They already are. You can go out to a hobby shop and buy them. There are limitations, though, on what you can do with them. Right now, you can’t use them for commercial purposes.

RM: It’s been said that drones could spark a new technological revolution. Do you foresee a significant economic impact?
TF: I think the economic impact of UAS is potentially huge, and it’s very exciting for us to have the opportunity to lead that. In March 2013, AUVSI released a report detailing its findings on the potential economic impacts of UAS for civil and commercial use. Among other things, they found that UAS could bring in $13.6 billion in the first three years alone and, in that same period, create more than 34,000 manufacturing jobs and more than 70,000 new jobs altogether. They estimated that, by 2025, total job creation would be at more than 103,000, and that tax revenue for the states would total more than $482 million in the first 11 years following integration of UAS into the National Airspace System.

RM: What about fears that drones could further erode our privacy?
TF: We’re probably giving away far more data by carrying cell phones in our pockets or purses. But privacy concerns are certainly justifiable. And devising appropriate policies and protocols to address them will be an intrinsic part of the research effort. •