One year in, the drone park creates new opportunities on campus
July 25, 2019
It’s hard to miss the drone park. Perched at the border between Virginia Tech's bustling main campus and the sleepy pastures that border U.S. 460, it peeks over the trees that ring the Duck Pond, punctuates the view from the highway, and occasionally catches stray golf balls from the nine-hole course behind the Inn at Virginia Tech.
The steel poles and nylon netting are an 85-foot-tall manifestation of Virginia Tech’s leadership in drone research and its commitment to advancing technology, education, and outreach in a field that’s rapidly reshaping industries from journalism to agriculture and taking a foothold in everyday life. Since its opening last spring, the park has become a fixture of campus life, offering new resources to a broadening range of users inside and outside the university.
More than 2,000 people used the park in the first year. And while some of that activity has been the kind you might expect — students building and testing custom drones, researchers experimenting with innovative robotics systems, professors bringing in their classes for hands-on flight experience — the park has turned out to appeal to a much wider audience, bringing in, among others, a Daisy Scout troop, elected officials, and a choreographer.
The park is a joint venture by the College of Engineering, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS). The institute oversaw its construction and manages its day-to-day operations.
“Faculty and students across the campus are working together to develop new opportunities for advancing research around unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Cyril Clarke, the university’s executive vice president and provost. “As a leader in the development and testing of this technology, Virginia Tech continues to create field-based facilities and build research capacity and expertise for improving these important systems.”
The park officially opened last April; a drone flew the freshly snipped ribbon in a victory lap around the net at the end of the ceremony. By the end of the year, the park had logged nearly 700 hours of scheduled use, a number it's on track to beat this year.
During the academic year, the park is booked every week, sometimes with multiple groups per day; even in the summer, outreach activities and ongoing research ensure that the park never goes empty for long.
Student and faculty researchers from four colleges, local tech companies, and national organizations have all booked time in the park, which offers classroom and lab space in a small building adjacent to the net. The university’s top-ranked drone racing team practices in the park; so did the design team that took home third place in an international drone-delivery competition. The park has hosted Staff Appreciation Day, Board of Visitors family events, and training for the Virginia Tech Police Department’s new drone program.
“When we partnered with the college and the Provost to build this facility, our vision was to provide a resource that would be useful to students, faculty, and staff interested in drone research,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and ICTAS' director. “It’s been gratifying to see how much activity the park has generated all over campus, and even more rewarding to see the new applications that the community has come up with. The existence of the park is inspiring work we never could have imagined two years ago.”
One of the park’s inaugural users was Wm. Michael Butler, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Engineering Education, who teaches one of the design courses required for first-year engineering students. Butler’s course challenges his students to build a drone that could be used to deliver medical supplies in remote areas. Having a safe on-campus environment to test their prototypes made the project much more manageable, and more than 800 of Butler’s students have flown — and sometimes crashed — their homemade foam-board designs inside the park’s limits.
“One of the best parts of being dean of a college at Virginia Tech is getting to see the enthusiasm with which our students delve into new technology and come up with clever, collaborative solutions to challenging problems,” said Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “This facility created a new environment for that kind of ingenuity, and it’s been so much fun to see new ideas take shape here.”
The park’s 85 vertical feet of flight space make it the tallest in the country; it’s also unique in that its expansive footprint isn’t obstructed by internal poles that could get in the way of aircraft zipping around inside it. (That sprawling “freespan” flight space is made possible by hundreds of feet of heavy-gauge steel cables that hold the net aloft.)
The netted enclosure provides an added layer of safety for new pilots and experimental aircraft, but it also dramatically expands possibilities for drone research. Because the park is enclosed, its airspace is exempt from the strict Federal Aviation Administration regulations that govern flights in the open. It also provides an easy route to flying in accordance with the university’s own drone policy.
Inside the park’s boundaries, researchers can test prototype aircraft and run ambitious experiments involving swarming drones, fully automated missions, and nighttime flights — all important applications that would be prohibited in open airspace.
One of the park’s major contributions has been outreach. The facility has hosted Virginia Tech’s Black College Institute, many rounds of area K-12 students, 4-H participants, a STEM organization called Girls Engineering Change, and numerous other groups.
Coordinating and overseeing all this activity keeps the park’s manager and a crew of student interns — all of whom have either earned or are working on their own remote pilot’s certificates — busy.
One of those interns is Alberto Post. Post, an aerospace and engineering major, has been working since 2017 with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which leads major federal drone-integration programs and helped guide the park’s construction. (Post was the one piloting the drone holding the ribbon that President Sands cut during the park’s opening ceremony.)
Post emphasized that the park has resources for pilots at almost any level: They maintain a small collection of aircraft for people just learning to fly, and more advanced pilots who already have their own drones can practice their skills in the park and use the lab’s tools to modify their aircraft and make repairs. They’ve also partnered with University Libraries to launch a drone-lending program that provides aircraft students can check out and fly in the park.
“It’s open to anyone who wants to get involved,” he said. “All you need to do is find a time slot on the calendar and go through a quick safety brief.”
Emily Pence, a senior materials science and engineering major who has been working at the drone park for a year and a half, said that for her the best part of having the drone park on campus is being on the front line of a revolutionary technology.
“There are so many people from different colleges that come because they share this one interest of wanting to fly drones,” she said. “It really brings together the community.”