US students helping firefighters, law enforcement through drone class


  • TECH
  • Monday, 19 Dec 2016

Old Dominion University students have spent this semester working with drones. They have focused on projects to help firefighters find blazes in remote areas and aid law enforcement in navigating water rescues. (Old Dominion University/TNS)

NORFOLK, Virginia: Old Dominion University students have spent this semester working with drones – but not to spy on anyone. 

Rather, they've focused on projects to help firefighters find blazes in remote areas and aid law enforcement in navigating water rescues. They've worked with crews in Carova, North Carolina, an Outer Banks community filled with dirt and sand roads and long stretches of beach that aren't easy to reach. 

The course is offered jointly by James Madison, George Mason and Old Dominion universities. Forty-one students, 16 from ODU, meet on Wednesday nights, sometimes through videoconferencing. 

Called "The Virginia Drone Project," the course explores ways the flying machines can help solve community problems. 

Or, as ODU doctoral candidate Brian Duvall put it: "Show the public what these things really are capable of doing." 

The Carova project was a good example, Duvall said. Because of the area's terrain, drones can help find and determine the severity of fires. But the Fire Department's drone kept crashing. 

The students put a data recorder in the drone, trying to figure out the reason for the crashes. At first, firefighters thought the problem could be signal interference from a cell tower not far from the Fire Department. 

But the data suggested otherwise. The class determined the problem was a hardware malfunction – a chip that wasn't working properly. 

Duvall said he signed up for the class because he likes tinkering with drones as a hobby. But helping communities added to its value. 

At the other schools, drone projects have included gauging the structure of a historic wall in Colombia, restoring communication abilities for first-responders in areas hit by hurricanes, and detonating land mines. 

Steven Machamer, an ODU senior who will graduate soon, said the class is a lot of work but he's glad he signed up. He said he knew little about drones before, and liked learning how they can aid firefighters. 

"I get to meet real people with real problems," Machamer said. 

Engineering professor Thomas Alberts, who teaches the course at ODU, is also a drone hobbyist. Students in the course are learning just how many ways drones can be used, he said. 

"There is a lot of good you can do with them," Alberts said. — The Virginian-Pilot/Tribune News Service

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