While we tend to think of “remotely piloted aircraft” or “drones” as the domain of the military or perhaps R/C hobbyists; dramatically lowered costs, smart phone based controller and improved pilot control by software assistance are about to enable this technology to cross into mainstream usage. This technology opens up new possibilities for educators looking for new ways to excite and engage students.
An example of this new class of consumer friendly drones is the AR Drone 2.0 from Parrot Industries.
This drone includes two cameras, flies for about 8 minutes and can be piloted via your smartphone or tablet with streaming video from the drone.
I recently purchased one and here is some footage at a river near my home.
Earlier this week San Francisco Based Always Innovating announced the MeCam mini-copter. This copter is designed to be controlled by voice commands and designed to get around the nagging problem of who holds the camera while you stand for the picture.
This is a big step forward for the technology. High density batteries enable 10-15 minute flight times, software and sensors have simplified flight controls and the unit is fully assembled instead of comming in a kit like traditional R/C aircraft. The manufacturer has included an SDK and a USB port which creates a nice platform for hacking and extending the device.
The rise of relatively lower cost, consumer and hacker friendly platforms has traditionally been a markers for a technology that is about to break out and go mainstream.
From an education technology perspective the quadcopter / multi-rotor platform has been used in a number of engineering programs. Consider this project from the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. The rise of a consumer friendly platform now enables a wider spectrum of students and educators to use this technology.
Here are some quick ideas for using this technology in studying natural sciences and humanities.
Natural Sciences — consider using the drones as part of field research and exercises. For example use the drone to conduct an aerial survey of a site to gain a fresh perspective. The students could use a map of the site and information about the drones flight characteristics such as altitude and total flight time to plan the route of the survey and then compare their data with information form sources such as Google earth to create an increased understanding of the site.
Digital Storytelling / Media — consider the ways that a hovering and flying camera platform could be used to get shots that otherwise would require a crane or real helicopter. There is also an opportunity to use the drone to view a crowd or augment coverage of an event.