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Rutgers professor E. A. Elsayed discusses the history and future of drones

As drones rise in popularity, their use is provoking new thinking on the possibilities. The U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Geological Survey already use drones to monitor wildlife populations without disturbing them. Amazon is testing drones that could deliver packages in as little as half an hour after an online purchase. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has teamed with other agencies on an experiment to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to spy on storms as they evolve.

E. A. Elsayed is distinguished professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. This summer, he will teach a course on the subject of drones at the Rutgers Pre-Engineering Summer Academy, part of the summer session offerings from the university’s Division of Continuing Studies. The one-week certificate program, which will introduce participants to aerospace, biomedical, civil, computer, electrical, forensic and mechanical engineering, will be held on July 31 through August 6 at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Drones are counting sea lions in Alaska, monitoring drug trafficking across the borders and conducting weather and environmental research.

Elsayed has led design teams in the construction of small unmanned aircraft systems. He is a frequent keynote speaker at national and international conferences and is the recipient of many awards. They include the William Mong Distinguished Lecturers Award and the David F. Baker Research Award from the Institute of Industrial Engineers for research contributions to the discipline of industrial engineering, as well as a Senior Fulbright Award. Rutgers Today talked with Elsayed about the future of drones and the summer course he will be teaching.

Q. What are drones and what are they used for?

Drones refer to aircraft that are either controlled from a ground station by a pilot or autonomously programmed to follow a specific flight plan. They vary in size, weight, travel time, payload and purposes. In military applications, for example, they are used in situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult, such as their use in reconnaissance and surveillance as well as their use, when armed, in targeting objects or individuals. The civilian applications are numerous, ranging from road traffic monitor and accident assessments to mosquito control and pesticide spraying, to examining miles of above-ground pipelines for oil or methane gas leaks, corrosion or damage.

Q. What is the history of drones and how were they first used?

E. A. Elsayed

The drones were originally used in military applications in WW II. The Balkans War witnessed the first use of armored drones as we see today. Their use has increased significantly since 2000 due to the advances of sensors, communication, improved reliability and their ability to stay aloft for days. The civilian applications grew significantly during the last five years.

Q. What is the expected growth of drone usage in the military and in civilian life and what novel uses might there be for next generation drones?

The growth in drone usage in both military and civilian life is exponential, more so in the civilian sector. The reliability of drones has improved significantly, which reduces the risk of failure. Moreover, the new guidelines of the Federal Aviation Administration made it possible to explore new applications in civilian life. As some of the restrictions are relaxed or removed, we will see further growth in the use of drones in group formations performing several tasks at once. They might be used for delivery of food and supplies to remote or isolated areas due to natural events such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

Q. You will be doing a hands-on drone session for the Pre-Engineering Summer Academy students. Why is this an important part of the curriculum?

This is a growing area for research and applications.  Engineers are involved in design, manufacturing, control and communications of the drones, more like robots. Students will learn methods for data acquisition, data analysis, programming, decision making and exploration of new applications.