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DCE Magazine

Hitting New Heights

Spring 2018

The sky's the limit for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

You've seen them hovering and zipping through the air like mechanical hummingbirds. NASA is planning to use them for atmospheric research; the military relies on them to locate and attack targets. And just about any hobbyist can grab one for $50 or so at Target or Brookstone.

Welcome to the age of drones, or rather Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Developed and used mainly to deliver high-resolution images from impossible heights and angles, they're now poised to revolutionize a number of industries.

“The market for UAVs is very hot right now,” said Barbara Grant, instructor for the Division of Continuing Education's Optical Engineering certificate program. “Amazon is a major player in this area, and drones are becoming more and more common for consumer as well as commercial purposes.” According to market researchers, the worldwide market is somewhere between $2 billion and $21 billion.

Drone technology is a game-changer, opening up a burgeoning market that will grow exponentially in coming years, Grant believes. Consider that Amazon is developing drone fleets that can deliver packages to your door within 30 minutes. And Uber is looking to test a line of UAV air taxis in L.A. by 2020, a potential revolution in urban travel.

For now, the most common uses for drones are aerial photography and videography, using increasingly miniaturized and sophisticated cameras. They're nearly ubiquitous in infrastructure and construction site inspection. And drones have been used to track wildfires in remote areas.

“Significant applications include surveying and mapping,” Grant said. “They're also being used to check for damage to pipelines and electrical lines.”

What might the future hold? Grant expects prices to decrease while quality and functionality increase, creating significant demand, “as with any game-changing technology.”

“I am looking forward to this, because I believe that as the quality improves, particularly on the camera end, the accuracy levels in some applications will also improve,” said Grant, who teaches Introduction to Radiometry and has authored a number of books on the subject, including “Getting Started with UAV Imaging Systems: A Radiometric Guide.”

But there's more to come — a lot more if you believe some of tech world's most innovative minds. By most accounts, the UAV future is coming fast.

Taking flight

Amazon Prime Air's drones have been well-publicized, and they're already taking flight in limited numbers. Prime Air carried out its first public demonstration in the U.S. in March, and successful trials have been conducted in Europe and Australia.

Now Uber is laying groundwork for compact UAV air taxis, a perfect solution for crowded city traffic. Uber Elevate is testing drones that could provide short, quick trips across town without an onboard pilot. Imagine getting from Long Beach to LAX in 20 minutes instead of battling gridlock for over an hour.

UAV taxis offer a number of potential benefits: They take off vertically like helicopters but they're much smaller, all-electric, quiet and exceedingly green. Uber plans trial runs in L.A. by 2020, with fully operational rooftop “droneports” ready to go by the time the Olympics come in 2028.

Sounds like a pipe dream, but Uber is moving full speed ahead. The company has partnered with a number of companies including Bell Helicopter. Dallas and Dubai are already committed to opening the skies to Uber Elevate, according to Uber chief product officer Jeff Holden.

“[It's] the pinnacle of urban mobility,” Holden said. “The reduction of congestion and pollution from transportation, giving people their time back, freeing up real estate dedicated to parking and providing access to mobility in all corners of a city.”

As with Prime Air, there are hurdles to overcome, not the least is FAA clearance, but steps are being taken to provide proper regulation. “Another indication of how hot the UAV market is,” Grant said, “there's an FAA advisory committee chaired by the CEO of Intel Corp. to advise on integration of commercial UAVs within the national airspace.”

This is clearly a growth segment that holds promise for anyone seeking a career in the UAV market. And the DCE Optical Engineering certificate program can be an excellent entry point.

A closer look

The concepts behind radiometry form an essential basis for optical technology that's crucial to many drone applications today. The U.S. military, for example, makes extensive use of radiometry in its UAV applications.

Simply put, radiometry involves techniques and technology that measure electromagnetic radiation that includes visible light, but also infrared waves that can't be seen by the human eye. That's a key component of many UAV systems, allowing for camera systems that deliver sophisticated imaging, Grant said.

“Lots of cameras can yield pretty pictures,” said Grant. “That's not the same as providing cameras that can yield quantitative, calibrated radiometric information about a ground target.”

Law enforcement can use drones with thermal-imaging cameras to hunt down suspects, and NASA is working on drones that can monitor the ozone layer. This technology is also a powerful tool in precision agriculture, one of the fastest growing applications for UAVs, Grant said.

“When crop growers need to assess plant health, water stress effects can be detected in near-infrared images before they may be seen by the eye.”

Get schooled

Introduction to Radiometry: The Propagation and Measurement of Optical Radiant Energy provides a strong background in the subject.

“My radiometry course relates to the UAV marketplace, in general, because our final project is a practical problem that UAV imaging systems address,” said Grant, owner of Grant Drone Solutions and recipient of two NASA awards for her work on weather satellite imagery. “My goal is to drive toward a top-level radiometric system design.”

The program offers a deep dive into optical engineering, teaching innovative approaches to camera system design. Skilled optical engineers are essential for developing smaller, lighter, more powerful cameras and lenses for advanced UAV systems.

“Some of the established camera companies, those with long track records, have cameras designed and marketed specifically for drones,” Grant said. “Because size, weight, and power consumption are critical issues for UAV cameras, knowledge of how to design high performing, small systems can be very helpful.”

Perhaps the most important part of learning radiometrics is knowing the language, Grant said. And the first two weeks of her course focus on terminology, which lays the foundation for the rest of the curriculum.

“I can't stress enough the importance of getting terminology right,” she said. “During my first job as junior engineer I was placed on a project with several PhDs in engineering and physics. They had no knowledge of key radiometric terminology, and they struggled. So I make sure participants in my course learn what these PhDs didn't know, early on.”

Learn more about the Optics Programs.