UAlbany converts old gym to drone lab

UAlbany's College of Emergency Preparedness Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC) hosted a recent open house.
UAlbany's College of Emergency Preparedness Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC) hosted a recent open house.

Last school year, University at Albany student Ian Jaffe built a drone using a 3-D printer for a digital design course.

The informatics major said he was interested in pursuing a job in the emerging drone industry. His first try, though, didn’t pan out as well as he had hoped. While the parts printed, they didn’t match up mechanically.

“It looked cool,” Jaffe said. “It didn’t fly.”

But Jaffe had no difficulty getting drones to fly this past week as UAlbany formally opened its new drone lab in a converted gymnasium on the university’s downtown campus. The college converted an old gymnasium in the basement of Page Hall, most recently used for storage and still housing old metal file cabinets, into a two-story flying lab outfitted with hoops and obstacles and a net to contain the small aerial crafts. For seniors like Jaffe, the opening of the new facility was bitter-sweet.

“If it was here freshman year, it would be a completely different story,” said Jake Hoffman, also senior informatics major. Hoffman showed how to use 3-D printers to make parts and accessories that can be added to the drones. Students sitting at a workbench in the new lab can experiment with new ways of holding cameras or new types of sensors.

The budding field and industry ushers in a new realm of ethical, legal, regulatory and philosophical questions the college lopes to consider.

“You hear about drones everywhere,” Jaffe said as he demonstrated how to maneuver the small drone, seemingly a slick childhood toy. “It’s like the next thing.”

University officials have started to lay the groundwork to build out its focus on drones. The fast-growing College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity begins teaching students about drone technology in introductory classes, with a handful of upper-level classes as well.

The puns were all but inevitable at last week’s launch party.

“We saw an opportunity to elevate our drain program,” Robert Griffin, dean of the UAlbany homeland security college, said of the gym conversion.

Griffin said basic drone technology is both of interest to students and the foundation of an industry he argued will be big and growing in the coming years.

“If you start to look at kids and how they react… that’s what the university is all about, to link kids with their desire to learn more,” said Griffin, as he stood just outside the net from where drones flew in and around the hoops.

The college has already offered a handful of drone-related courses, including a new course this year that paired students in the homeland security program with law students from Albany Law School.

Students had to purchase a small drone for the class – in lieu of a textbook.

Law school professor Robert Heverly and some law school students said it’s useful to step away from the books and see and touch the physical manifestation under consideration in a more theoretical way in the classroom.

“It’s always easy to just read a case and say it should be this way,” said Marina Chu, a third-year law student. “But things are not black and white, so having had our experience of seeing their capabilities, I think that will only help.”

Today’s law students will be the policymakers who have to grapple with how to regulate in an industry with potential to be both innovative and invasive.

“It’s always easy to make a rule and not think about the impacts,” Chu said.

The drone facility will give students, researchers and professionals from the broader community a place to practice basic flying, somewhere less regulated than outside air space, and study drone technology.

“It’s not really until you put your hands on the technology that you fully understand the implications, until you see what it can do or can’t do,” said Brandon Behlendorf, a professor in the homeland security college.

He cited the FAA’s estimate that there will be over 4 million drones sold in 2020, many millions of which will be sold to hobbyists. The potential uses are widespread: search and rescue operations, surveys of disaster damage, threat and risk assessments, firefighting, marketing, media creation and much more. Concerns of surveillance and other intrusions of privacy also pervade the discussion around drones.

“That technology is changing our society already,” Behlendorf said.

The students leaving UAlbany just as the new drone lab opens still have chances in drone market. Joseph Scaperrotta, a recent graduate of the homeland security school, works at Mechanical Testing Inc. in Saratoga Springs, which provides drone repairs and inspections. The company donated a dozen drones – which cost about $100 – to the new drone lab. He said drones can be used to inspect telephone and electrical lines, examine heating and cooling equipment and analyze pipelines. He said they are popular among hobbyists, photographers and many others.

“Even though they’re so popular, there are still a lot of people who aren’t aware of drones and their capabilities,” Scaperrotta said.

With government agencies starting to expand use of drone technology, UAlbany hopes to leverage its position in the Capital Region to a leadership role in the growing field. The college plans to open the door of drone lab to the broader community, welcoming first responders, emergency managers and industry people to take advantage of the facility and the research – and play – happening there.

“Drones are going to fundamentally change the world, I honestly believe that,” Griffin said.

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