April 23, 2013

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By Matt Hughes


Lewisburg, Pa. — With the tap of a touchscreen, four propellers whirred to life and launched the drone two stories high above Bucknell University's campus.

At the helm of his iPad-based control panel, Professor of Physics Tom Solomon deftly guided the drone above the heads of about a dozen students lying or squatting in patterns on the lawn behind Vedder Hall, viewing them through an onboard camera live-streaming to the tablet's screen.

Then, with another tap of the screen, drone technology had landed at Bucknell.

Solomon offered students an up-close look of the computer-controlled Parrot AR Drone recently purchased by the Physics Department during an April Wednesday Night Live event hosted by the Bucknell Residential Fellows.

"The drone itself demonstrates a lot of interesting physics principles," said Solomon. "Physics in general is a field that lends itself very nicely to toys, because toys basically show physics phenomenon. So I have a philosophy that if I see something that's cool, I get it, and inevitably there's something cool that you can do with it from a physics perspective."

While calling the device a high-tech toy, Solomon also noted its obvious application both in his classroom and in contemporary physics research. Solomon studies the way nodes in a network can spontaneously form patterns, and said the drone provides a convenient tool for capturing the process on video.

While drone technology has come down to the consumer level — Solomon's drone was purchased for about $300 on Amazon.com — the ethics surrounding its use are still being weighed in the halls of government and the public forum. Solomon challenged students at the demonstration to ponder the moral implications surrounding breakthroughs in technology.

"When you open the box, the first thing it says is, 'Warning, there are ethical issues about using drones with cameras on them,'" Solomon told students. "There are certain things that are not ethically OK, like flying up to someone's window and taking pictures. Conceivably, if you got good with this thing, you could take pictures of almost anything, so there are some serious privacy issues involved."

Solomon also said he wanted students to marvel at the technology lifting the drone off the ground.

"There's something to be said for technology that's just plain cool," Solomon said.

And students attending the demo were awed, not only by drone, but by Solomon's willingness to put the controls of the device in their hands.

"It was definitely a fun experience," Raffie Berberian '14 of Havertown, Pa., said after trying his hand at the controls of the drone. "I've never flown a drone before. He's taking the learning experience out of the classroom, which I think is very unique and engaging."

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