12/17/2015 Gregory L. Wright

Drone Nation

This magazine article is part of Fall 2015 / Issue 83

Unmanned aerial vehicles hover at the intersection of technology and controversy—and they're here to stay.

A handful of Franklin & Marshall alumni gaze skyward near Hartman Green on a clear summer morning, searching for the source of a faint humming sound. From behind tall trees, it emerges: a small plastic vehicle with four rotors, equipped with a tiny camera on its underbelly.

The unmanned aerial vehicle—known as a drone in popular culture—is flying under the control of the College's videographer, who is producing a short film about the weekend's festivities. The alumni have returned to campus for Reunion Weekend, a three-day trip down memory lane for graduates of all generations. But as they snap pictures of the machine flying above the trees, they come face-to-face with a subject that promises to play an increasingly significant role in our future.

Hundreds of stories about the use of drones by businesses and private citizens have dominated the news in 2015. Perhaps most striking about the coverage is its variety of viewpoints. Numerous stories described the benefits and efficiency drones are bringing to a vast array of activities—construction, agriculture, real-estate assessment and sales, disaster relief, videography and photography, search-and-rescue operations, and inspections of everything from buildings to airplanes.

But the news also reports the downside of drones. A man was arrested for crashing his drone on the White House grounds, and another was cited for crashing one into an empty section of the grandstands during a tennis match at the U.S. Open in New York. There were more than 700 sightings of drones in restricted airspace in only nine months, prompting federal officials to announce in October that people would have to register recreational drones with the government. The U.S. Forest Service banned drone use on federal lands this summer because people were flying them into forest fires, interfering with efforts to extinguish those fires. There were several stories of private citizens shooting drones out of the air because of privacy concerns.

In the wake of these developments, questions arise. What benefits do drones bring to businesses and nonprofits? How does Franklin & Marshall College use drones? What does the future of drones look like? And how comfortable will we be with that future?

The Wild West

Most of the controversy about drones focuses on two areas: safety and privacy. The Federal Aviation Administration has a number of drone regulations in place; operators are only allowed to fly during the day and are not allowed to fly above 400 feet or within five miles of airports, for instance. But some hobbyists and even some businesses have ignored those regulations. In early October, the agency proposed a record $1.9 million fine against SkyPan International of Chicago, saying the aerial photography company had operated 65 unauthorized drone flights into restricted airspace in New York and Chicago over a 33-month period. FAA officials now say they are again considering a proposal to require each drone operator to earn a valid pilot's license before being authorized to fly.

Those safety concerns are justified, says James Strick, Franklin & Marshall professor of science, technology and society and the department's chair.

"Private ownership of drones in the United States has grown so fast that in some ways, it's 'the Wild West' out there," says Strick. "You have thousands of people across the country who have received a drone for a birthday present or bought one at a hobby shop and they have no flying experience at all. It's only a matter of time before we have a close call for a drone with a major airline flight."

Regarding privacy, several state legislatures have passed legislation that would limit or even ban the use of drones. A Pennsylvania state senator has introduced a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by any state or local agency, with the exception of response to natural disasters, search-and-rescue operations and Amber Alerts. Sen. Mike Follmer calls his bill the Fourth Amendment Protection Act after the Bill of Rights Amendment protecting citizens from unlawful search and seizure. He has expressed concern that "the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania citizens are threatened by 21st-century technology."

A Drone By Any Other Name

Even the name of the devices spurs controversy. Many operators prefer the term, "unmanned aerial vehicles," instead of drones, saying the latter holds negative connotations because the U.S. military has used drones for bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan. That military association is an important part of public concerns about privacy, says Strick.

"We live in a post-9/11 world," he says. "It's a time when things that once seemed unbelievable are now much more plausible. So law-enforcement authorities are saying the right things—they won't weaponize drones and they won't use them to do surveillance and gather information on people without a warrant. But in the wake of torture revelations about Abu Ghraib prison and CIA black sites and Edward Snowden's disclosures about the National Security Agency monitoring U.S. citizens' emails and phone calls, ethical boundaries that once seemed clear to everyone are not so clear any more. So the police can't completely alleviate the 'Big Brother' aspect of these devices; they can't fully assure us about our privacy."

He continues, "Many people concerned about privacy and civil liberties in this country are also troubled about the increasing numbers of law-enforcement agencies using military-surplus equipment—the so-called 'militarization of the police.' This has received a lot of attention since the events last year in Ferguson and I think increasing use of drones could also further erode public trust in the police."

The Business of Drones

Drones aren't scary or intimidating for Matt Satell '09. In fact, he's based his burgeoning business, Philly by Air, on them. The business provides aerial photography and video in the Philadelphia area. Philly by Air's services include video aerial tours, inspection and progress reports of construction sites, images of commercial properties, footage for commercials, even photos of special events like grand openings, weddings and galas. Most of his clients are businesses, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to large universities.

"A few years ago, I saw a video shot by a drone flying over the Rocky Mountains," Satell says. "I was hooked. I purchased my own drone and started going around Philadelphia taking aerial pictures. I noticed there were no websites featuring aerial footage of the city, so I started my own in early 2014. I was fortunate to receive some great initial feedback and media coverage. To date, Philly by Air has been featured by 17 media outlets." 

  • Matt Satell '09, founder of Philly by Air, uses drones to capture images of Philadelphia from as high as 400 feet off the ground. For this shot, Satell flies the drone over the Schuylkill River to photograph Center City from the northwest Matt Satell '09, founder of Philly by Air, uses drones to capture images of Philadelphia from as high as 400 feet off the ground. For this shot, Satell flies the drone over the Schuylkill River to photograph Center City from the northwest Image Credit: Matthew Satell/Philly By Air

In just two years, Philly by Air has grown significantly. "I started the site as a side project, but companies started reaching out to me asking if they could hire me," Satell says. "So it ended up organically turning into a business. I still have my full-time job as a digital marketing manager, but Philly by Air has grown to the point that I now work with two additional pilots."

Satell's business is expanding outside Philadelphia, too. He's launched the Seattle by Air and Portland by Air sites to showcase aerial footage from those two cities, and hopes to develop sites in other cities down the road.

Clients are increasingly asking for more complex, high-end video production, Satell says. "Our most time-consuming project was an aerial video shoot with Temple University," he recalls. "We spent almost five hours filming all around their campus. They used the footage for their last television commercial."

Satell says he hasn't experienced any negative reaction to his drone use and blames media attention on isolated incidents for public misgivings about drones.

"It's unfortunate drones have gotten a bad name," he says. "The media seems to focus on incidents where someone is operating their drone recklessly, but tens of thousands of drone operators fly responsibly every single day. That's because they have the practice and experience to do so. Flying near cities is particularly challenging, so we take additional precautions. All of our pilots have been through safety-certification programs and are fully insured. We have a 15-step safety checklist that we use before every flight. Safety is always our number one priority."

Lux et Lex et Drones

Three Franklin & Marshall administrative offices have purchased drones in the last year. Al Monelli, video producer and video production manager in the Office of Communications, says his drone's "big coming-out party was the video covering Commencement."

"The drone certainly provides a cost savings," he says. "We rented a drone in the past, but having our own is much cheaper, and it's certainly less expensive than using a helicopter or small airplane. But it also gives you more options. I don't want to use it just for standard aerial videography; the shots you get with a drone can really help to tell the story. They can bring a richer visual language, a whole new perspective on the subject."

He says the 2014 end-of-the-year video from President Porterfield is one example of that. "We used excerpts from John F. Kennedy's 'We Choose to Go to the Moon' speech," Monelli says. "We matched that with video from campus that soared above Old Main and quickly moved past other buildings. That matched the words and really gave you the feeling that F&M was on the move."

Monelli also says one trick he has learned is that you can get great video by flying the drone away from the subject. "It pulls the camera back really dramatically," he notes. "In the Commencement video, we close with a graphic that says, 'Good luck out there,' and that message is reinforced by the drone pulling away quickly from Hartman Green and soaring high into the air, making the ending more dramatic and meaningful."

Monelli says he hasn't had much negative reaction to using the drone, partially because he gets all the proper clearances and notifies F&M's Department of Public Safety before flying. The biggest problem, he says, is that the drone draws a crowd. "The novelty factor is still there. When I used it during the Commencement processional, the local newspaper tweeted that more parents were taking photos of the drone than of their own children marching in to graduate."

Franklin & Marshall's Department of Athletics & Recreation also uses a drone. Mickey Blymier, director of athletic communications, is the primary operator and says he primarily uses it to shoot video during warmups and practices. "I don't like to fly during actual contests," Blymier says. "Obviously, I have other duties during the game, but I also think it is distracting to the players."

The first drone at the College actually was purchased more than a year ago by Facilities and Operations. Nic Auwaerter '11, F&O's sustainability coordinator, operates the drone.

"We were receiving a lot of inquiries about the North Campus project in late 2014," he recalls. "So much was happening there and the landscape was changing so quickly that people had questions—the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, people in surrounding neighborhoods. But that's a large area, and the only way to show it all was from the air. We wound up purchasing a drone to take photos and video. After three or four times using it, it paid for itself."

Auwaerter says he flies the drone an average of three times per week, weather permitting, mostly for aerial photography and videography, but also for mapping.

"When we're constructing or renovating a building, it's difficult to get the entire picture of what's going on if you don't have shots from the air," he says. "And the public is increasingly interested in these projects. When we installed the new roof on Ben Franklin South this summer, I sent images on so they could be posted to the College's website and people could follow the progress of the work. I'm working on a project now for the Department of Public Safety because Google Maps is a little slower and more inexact in reflecting all the changes to the campus." 

  • Drones have become a regular sight on the F&M campus, with three administrative offices regularly using drones in their work: Athletics & Recreation, Communications, and Facilities & Operations. Professors also employ drones increasingly in their research. Drones have become a regular sight on the F&M campus, with three administrative offices regularly using drones in their work: Athletics & Recreation, Communications, and Facilities & Operations. Professors also employ drones increasingly in their research. Image Credit: Alexander Monelli

Auwaerter points out that the drone can make the campus safer for facilities workers. "In the past, when we've had to do an inspection of a building or determine whether repairs are needed, staff had to climb ladders and walk around on some precarious surfaces," he says. "Now I'm able to fly the drone over a site and hand the iPad to that worker and he can assess whether there's any need for repair. It saves the College money and it's safer for our employees."

He says he has had only one complaint about the drone and thinks that one reason for the lack of negative feedback is, ironically, that he flies it so often. "The more I fly it, the more precise I get," Auwaerter says. "Not only can I take shots that are a little trickier or more complicated than the ones I could get in the first month or two, but I don't do any unnecessary flying. I've figured out the purpose for every aspect of every flight and go directly from point A to point B without any excessive flight time."

Research from the Air

Perhaps the most overlooked use of drones is their role in academic research. Both the Art and Art History and Earth and Environment departments purchased drones in 2015.

Kostis Kourelis, associate professor of art and art history, first started using a drone in summer 2014. He co-directs an archeological project in Greece surveying deserted villages. "One of my research colleagues from Maryville University brought the drone," Kourelis recalls. "We're trying to survey and reconstruct the villages in a 3-D map to better understand the people and their relationship with the environment. It is much more efficient to do an aerial survey with a drone than with a kite or balloon, which was done in the past."

Kourelis is using the drone in research on Lancaster, including his seminar, "House Archaeology." It also is being used by John Holmgren, assistant professor of art, in his photography classes and in his work in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Drone imagery has been critical to the ongoing research by Dorothy Merritts, Harry W. & Mary B. Huffnagle Professor of Geosciences and chair of the Department of Earth and Environment. Merritts and her research team have investigated stream and wetland restoration for more than a decade

Like Kourelis, Merritts' research requires evidence from a wide area and previous aerial imagery could only be captured using an aircraft or a weather balloon. "Those had obvious drawbacks," she says. "Flying a plane or helicopter was expensive and sometimes gave you choppy or blurry images, which was even more of a problem with the balloon. The alternative was wading through the stream or wetland taking measurements. That is tough physically and takes a long time to complete."

One of Merritts' research assistants, Sophie Gigliotti '15, describes the drone as "having your own personal Google Earth. You can't control when Google Earth images are taken or what the weather conditions are, but you have control of those variables with a drone."

Merritts adds, "Within minutes, we can capture real-time video and photos, so we can incorporate regular monitoring of our field sites, which was impossible before. Looking at the landscape from 400 feet in the air provides a new perspective when we're looking for patterns in the topography and interpreting them. As we're conducting research on our first wetland restoration site, Big Spring Run, we can fly the drone after a heavy rain to monitor the site's response to the flooding. And we're preparing to investigate a new site along Piney Run in Maryland. We're using the drone to evaluate the current condition of the stream. Once we start the restoration process next fall, we can get more aerial images to compare to the baseline and evaluate how fully the stream has been restored."

Merritts said the drone images have had an effect beyond her scientific research. "In the future, we hope to incorporate 3-D modeling into our research analysis," she says. "But one thing we've discovered is that the drone also is an educational tool. When we present our research at policy conferences or to environmental education groups, the visual evidence is very powerful. In the past, much of my research was presented as statistical data, but when people see 'before and after' photos of a site, they understand in a way that scientific data alone can't provide."

Continuing Controversy

For all the benefits that drones provide, the controversy surrounding them is certain to continue. It may linger for years to come, says Strick, who teaches history of science and medicine courses. While public concerns focus on what could happen if drones malfunction, it would be prudent to consider what could happen if they function even more effectively.

"Most of us spend a lot of time wondering about the 'downside' risks of new technology," Strick says. "What if it's defective and doesn't work exactly as it is supposed to? But ethicists also spend time wondering about the 'upside' risks—what if the technology does everything it is supposed to do, but changes society in ways we hadn't anticipated and we aren't comfortable with?"

Drones raise privacy issues today, Strick says, since they can capture images through windows. But he says there will be continuing questions: What if their navigational tools become even more precise? What if they become easier for the average person to use? What if they become capable of even more high-definition images from even greater distances? "We may be unhappy with those implications, and they may affect not only our relationships with the authorities, but even those with our neighbors."

The professor says it's common for powerful new technologies to outrun our legal and ethical frameworks.

"Every technological breakthrough leads to ramifications that can't be fully anticipated or predicted," he says. "The problem is, of course, that we can only see those ramifications and effects after the fact, often many years later."


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