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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

UC Students Demonstrate How Drones Can Help You

Posted By on Wed, Apr 17, 2013 at 12:15 PM

click to enlarge UC BERKELEY
  • UC Berkeley

Coye Cheshire doesn't mean to be impolitic, but he can't help mentioning the FBI's fruitless search for a Boston Marathon bomber -- and how it could be abetted by technology.

"The whole push is to find someone who had pictures, and who could provide high resolution information about public events," says Cheshire, an associate professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information.

He's pretty certain he has a solution to this problem, and you're probably not going to like it: Drones. The small, unmanned, all-seeing aircrafts, are mostly considered in a military context, and thus used for nefarious reasons, Cheshire says. But set aside your paranoia -- at least long enough to read this article, and inform yourself about how drones can actually be used for social good.

See Also: Meet Your Neighborhood Drones

Or for artistic purposes.

At the UC Berkeley School of Information, a group of graduate students recently coalesced around the idea of building their own drones for a variety of reasons -- all good. They could be programmed to take exacting photographs at sports events, or interred at archeological dig sites to gather data about the environment, Cheshire says. They could be deputized to take "Google Street View"-style pictures of untrodden places -- like ground mapping of Mount Diablo for hikers.

Of course, they could also be used to solve crimes and spy on ordinary citizens -- a prospect that's rattled privacy experts right here in San Francisco. When the Oakland Police DepartmentAlameda County Sheriff proposed drones as a cheaper alternative to surveillance helicopters, local activists freaked out. Law enforcement agencies across the country had already embraced the notion of employing drones for police work, comparing the new aerial hardware to other motion-sensor technology that's already become part of everyday life, such as traffic light cameras.

UC faculty understands why drones have generated so much controversy and debate, but they also believe the benefits of these flying robots might convince naysayers. Microsoft made "gesture recognition" technology widely available three years ago when it added the Kinect sensor device to its Xbox 360. Now, other companies have sharpened that model, bringing smart TVs and touchless computers and other whiz-bang gadgetry on the market. Much of this could be applied to drones, Cheshire says.

So far, the school's inaugural drone lab -- where Cheshire serves as faculty sponsor -- has attracted a variety of academics, from hardware engineers, to social scientists, to legal students who are more interested in the "Big Brother" debate. Their equipment is slightly crude -- just a large, noisy arsenal of AR drones that cost a couple hundred bucks on Amazon -- and their ideas are a little inchoate. But Cheshire hopes the group will create useful technology, and maybe even a smaller device that could fold up in your backpack.

click to enlarge UC BERKELEY
  • UC Berkeley

"The future down the road is this little thing you throw up in the air, and it does some routine you've programmed it to do," he says.

He gave us a hypothetical example: Imagine the remote-controlled, puddle-jump airplane that flies to the rear of your yard and finds out if you need to replace your shingles. His students are fairly sure that once drones have a more productive household purpose, they'll get a better name.

"You strap a bomb to it, and that's what it's for -- that's unfortunate," Cheshire says. "But think of what other cool stuff you can do with something you program and put in the sky."

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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan has been a staff writer at SF Weekly since 2013. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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