New course uses drones to inspire student innovation


Many university professors believe students learn best by doing; in a class offered at the University of Missouri in the upcoming fall semester, students will learn by designing software applications and flying.

Thirty students in the Information Technology program will spend two afternoons each week testing software they engineer for use in unmanned aerial systems, more commonly known as drones. Course instructor Matthew Dickinson has designed the class to expose students to how drones operate, potential applications of the technology and the legal and ethical issues surrounding their use.

“The Information Technology Program’s interest in unmanned aerial systems is derived from the information technology abilities of the platform,” said Dale Musser, director of the IT program. “From locating lost children to analyzing the state of crops, the unmanned aerial systems have useful applications that need to be invented, explored and improved-upon. Information technologies are always evolving, and it is important for the IT Program to evolve with them.”

Dickinson has been working with drones at MU for four years and is the program director for the MU Drone Lab.

For this course, he purchased 12 Parrot.AR drones, which technically are quadcopters roughly shaped like a four-leaved clover. The Parrot.AR drones will be available to students in addition to drones the program already owns. Students working in teams of five or six will create new software applications for them and devise creative uses for the aerial technology.

“We’ll be more focused on the practical application of drones,” Dickinson said. “I’m trying to keep it as open as possible so students don’t have preconceived notions. I don’t want to tell them what to do; I want to see what their young minds can come up with.”

Because of legal requirements enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration, the class will fly drones inside buildings — including MU’s Lafferre Hall, Hearnes Center and Trowbridge Livestock Center. The program is in the process of applying for a Certificate of Authorization through the Federal Aviation Administration to also permit flying outdoors, Dickinson said.

Dickinson is hoping students will think of innovative uses for drone technology — everything from mapping buildings to delivering objects, he said.

One MU IT student enrolled in the fall course, senior Aaron Scantlin, purchased his own Parrot.AR drone this spring to work with at home. He’s incredibly excited about the upcoming class, he said.

“All of Matthew’s classes are very hands-on, and that’s what I expect for this class, too,” Scantlin said. “I’m excited to try some of the modifications Matthew may suggest for the class drones on mine at home.”

Scantlin currently is enrolled in an IT capstone course that involves developing uses for drone technology. He and three other students are working to create a video and image recognition analysis system that could be used for search and rescue missions. In Dickinson’s class, Scantlin plans to expand upon what he’s already learned with his capstone group.

“There aren’t many textbooks on drones, so students will learn by experimentation — by working with the technology to inspire them to develop ideas and concepts,” Dickinson said.