SALINA, Kan. -- The drones are coming.
In fact, Kansas State University sees something of a drone nation beyond the horizon.
Which is why, a few years ago, the college launched a bachelor’s degree program in operating airborne robots. Some call them UAS, or unmanned aircraft systems. Others prefer the term UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles.
To you, they’re drones — just not the ones that launch weapons.
Large swaths of the civilian world, from first responders to ranchers, real estate agents, park rangers and even some golf-course superintendents, are pining for the remote cameras and potential cost-savings of a well-guided drone compared to manned flight.
The most famous of the military drones, the Predator, has proved in Pakistan and Afghanistan its skills at gathering intelligence and firing missiles at suspected terrorists — at no risk to the pilot looking at a video screen on the ground.
Here at home, less-muscled drones are now regularly deployed by dozens of public agencies to scan crime scenes, search for people lost in the woods and snoop on drug deals.
Drones inspect crop damage. Chart drought patterns. Monitor hurricanes. Catch illegal immigrants crossing the border.
At K-State’s UAS lab in Salina, a 25-pound, battery-powered helicopter resting on a countertop recently was sent aloft by researchers on a mission to track the migration of prairie chickens.
Commercial interests have lobbied Congress hard to receive Federal Aviation Administration certification to fly their own drones in U.S. airspace. Some real estate outfits have already hired operators to guide camera-carrying drones over luxury properties, creating high-definition, bird’s-eye video that can wow potential buyers.
Earlier this year, police warned the real estate community in Los Angeles that home-droning for moneymaking purposes was against federal law. But that may not be true by the fall of 2015, when the FAA faces a deadline set by lawmakers to safely integrate high-flying drones, including the commercial type, with manned aircraft.
So drone fever is spreading, and quickly — too quickly for privacy advocates. They worry that the rush to put more cameras in the sky will encourage eavesdropping on law-abiding Americans.
In recent weeks, social media and conservative commentators caught national attention with rumors that government drones were dispatched from the Kansas City, Kan., site of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional headquarters, to check on whether cow manure was fouling water supplies.
Actually, the agency was using small piloted planes.
K-State was just the second university in the nation to offer a bachelor of technical science degree with an emphasis in unmanned aircraft systems.
Only seven students signed up to pursue the degree in 2010. Last year, 21 signed up.
Extra chairs, tables and a sofa were required in the drone classroom to accommodate the demand. The teaching will move to larger quarters in the fall, when as many as three dozen degree-chasers will take courses that transition them from learning in conventional cockpits to flying unmanned craft using a laptop or iPhone.
In May, Zach Powell, 25, became the first K-Stater to receive the degree. He expects to head to Afghanistan later this summer to work drone jobs for a defense contractor.
“You’re seeing student interest double or triple each year, and I think it’ll just continue to do so,” Powell said, “especially as the word gets out.”
The word? K-State instructors say some defense contractors will pay fresh graduates $150,000 a year to program, fly and maintain drones overseas.
Powell said his long-term aim is to return home and pilot non-military drone missions — maybe search and rescue efforts, which K-State courses explore. He voices no interest in spying; his senior paper examined privacy issues in the field of unmanned flight.
Whatever a drone might see in your back yard, the enthusiasts point out, a pilot in the air can see with the proper equipment.
Google Earth, for that matter, might catch you sunbathing in the nude behind a privacy fence or growing pot in a greenhouse.
Still, Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming more sophisticated each year, and they’re shrinking in size and price.
A hobbyist can construct a dinky drone mounted with a camera for as little as $300, tapping parts available online or in electronics stores.
The primitive models aren’t likely to stay airborne more than 10 minutes. But if the gadget flies lower than 400 feet and the operator never loses sight of it from the ground, it’s presently legal to buzz it around the neighborhood.
“You can easily steer some drones through an open window,” Jeschke said. “It wouldn’t take much for a rogue student to misuse these devices.”
But because drones are less expensive than manned aircraft — and because many potential benefits of drone technology are undeniable — more robots are bound for the skies, Jeschke said: “Let’s make sure the technology does all the cool things without compromising our privacy.”
Her group foresees as many as 30,000 drones whirring above Americans within a decade.
Kansas’ UAV capital
Earlier this year, a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation forced the FAA to release a list of more than 50 public entities that had obtained federal authorization to fly unmanned aerial vehicles.
K-State was on the list, of course. So were two dozen other universities and community colleges.
Some institutions approved to operate drones surprised nobody familiar with the industry: NASA, U.S. military posts, the FBI, the border patrol and U.S. Forest Service increasingly rely on flying video tools that carry no humans.
But the FAA’s list is more varied than what technology analysts and privacy advocates previously knew.
Drone licenses have gone to several county sheriffs’ departments, police departments as large as Houston’s and as small as North Little Rock’s in Arkansas (though none yet in the Kansas City area) and, curiously, the city of Herington, Kan., population 2,500.
Herington — 40 miles south of Fort Riley — for years has been positioning itself to be what the town’s airport manager, Merlin Oswald, called “kind of the UAV capital of Kansas.”
Local officials secured three unmanned aerial vehicles and federal flight authorization. A new drone flight facility at the Herington airport last year was poised to help a U.S. military contractor send drone-guided radiation sensors into the nuclear-plant emergency near Fukushima, Japan.
Though Japanese officials turned down the offer, the disaster fell perfectly into the category of so-called “3-D” missions — dull, dirty or dangerous — in which the drone industry seeks to specialize.
Herington envisioned itself a training center and testing ground for zipping drones into areas needing emergency communications, food or other supplies. One of the drones on loan to the city could be dropped from a manned aircraft and carry 500 pounds of its own cargo.
But last June, federal and state authorities balked at the city’s ambitions and demanded the drones be returned.
“This is a big deal to us,” said Chuck Jarnot, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and Herington-area resident with experience in drone operations in Afghanistan.
“In each of the last few years, there’s been 10 to 15 percent job growth in the UAV sector nationwide. It’s recession-proof Companies are drooling to use this technology.”
If a drone tsunami is approaching, Jarnot and other industry watchers caution that experienced professionals — not just anyone with a joystick or laptop — should work the controls.
Drone operators guiding gadgets at altitudes above 400 feet or beyond their line of sight “should know everything a pilot has to know,” said Chris Stephenson, terminal technology coordinator for the Air Traffic Controllers Association.
That includes holding an instrument-rated license to fly, enabling pilots to steer through thick cloud cover.
“It is a concern of ours,” he said. “As cheap as some of these vehicles are priced, you don’t want just anyone to go out, buy one and fly them around willy-nilly.”
It’ll be the FAA’s job to study and sort through the safety concerns in the coming months.
The agency is close to selecting six sites around the country that would test the movement of drones sharing airspace with various manned craft.
Currently, U.S. drones can only fly in restricted airspace or through certificates of authorization issued to public agencies. But by the middle of next year, the FAA is expected to issue new rules to allow small drones weighing up to 55 pounds to operate in the national airspace system.
A whole new world
The fleet inside the K-State drone lab reflects the wide variety of unmanned aircraft being built and flown.
An inexpensive model with a styrofoam frame, mounted camera and autopilot functions can be launched by hand.
Parked nearby, the quarter-million-dollar Aerosonde Mark 4.7 boasts a 12-foot wingspan and $5,000 infrared lens, which can detect bodies at night.
Some of the drones are launched off catapults 14 feet long. One fuel-powered model can take off from a cradle in the back of a moving pickup, circle for 20 hours and be programmed to land on its own — all on a 1 ½-gallon tank of gas.
“We tend not to use the word ‘drone’ in class,” said lead professor Eric Shappee. “They’re ‘remotely piloted aircraft.’
“To me, anything called a drone gives out the feeling that it’s expendable. These vehicles are not expendable.”
College junior Coby Tenpenny said operating drones from the ground may lack some of the wild-blue-yonder rush of piloting a regular plane — his initial career goal upon entering K-State.
He gets teased a bit from fellow students sticking with manned aircraft.
“They think we’re playing video games,” Tenpenny said, though he might have the last laugh in the real world:
“I have a wife, a kid and another kid on the way, and I’ll like coming home every night (as a drone operator). I won’t have to worry about being furloughed for a week in Pittsburgh.”
Said Josh Brungardt, who directs the university’s UAS programs: “You can see this whole new world of aviation developing
“We get calls almost every day from other universities wanting to come and see what we have. We’ve got industry partners who are hiring even before our students graduate.”
The new directions that schools are pursuing don’t stop at drone operation, repair and design.
The University of Nebraska at Lincoln is offering “drone journalism” courses.
Last week the school announced that its drone journalism lab, headed by professor of practice Matt Waite, received a $50,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to research and conduct experiments that marry unmanned aircraft with the news media.
“Because drone journalism is non-existent, we can help news managers make a decision: Is journalism a proper use of drones?” Waite said.
Reporters arriving at a disaster scene could benefit from a quick and inexpensive aerial view of the destruction via drone, he said. News groups could save a lot of money, and maybe some lives, grounding their manned helicopters.
In a December report, the American Civil Liberties Union predicted an even more surreal future.
“Airborne technologies could be developed that could, for example, be used to control or dispel protesters (perhaps by deploying tear gas or other technologies), stop a fleeing vehicle, or even deploy weapons,” the ACLU said.
Already a bipartisan bill in Congress would require law enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants before using drones to inspect property not in public view.
Ben Miller, who directs the drone program for the Mesa County, Colo., sheriff’s office, said his department supports legal safeguards to protect citizens from the misuse of police or other government drones.
“Law enforcement should do all it can to help people of the United States feel comfortable about what (drones) will and won’t do,” said Miller, whose program won FAA permission to operate its Draganflyer drones. “But we have to meet somewhere in the middle.”
Recently, Mesa County investigators used a drone to hover 60 feet above an irrigation canal where a body was found. Detailed images of the deceased’s footprints, coupled with toxicology findings, helped police to conclude the death was accidental.
“Having that bird’s-eye view in high resolution is a huge plus,” Miller said.
But what if police investigating, say, an outdoor homicide run into the drone journalism graduates out of Nebraska?
No amount of yellow tape could keep the press’ flying cameras from snooping for evidence of mayhem.
Journalism instructor Waite acknowledged the drone age is going to get complicated.
“Most people see the possibilities as either really cool or the creepiest thing in the world,” Waite said. “But the truth is in between
“If you think using drones is all cool and not even a little creepy, there’s something wrong with you. If you think it’s totally creepy and not a little bit cool, well, you’re missing the point.”