WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Exploration Place is hosting its Drone Light Festival this Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 21-23. There will be 300 drones lighting up the sky, so Wichitans from miles away will be able to see the show. This year’s drones are brighter and can fly longer compared to last year’s show.
Exploration Place on drones
Adam Smith, Exploration Place president, says the drones will form pictures in the sky, such as the Wichita flag. He says drones are a technology that has been changing the world.
“I feel that drones and drone technology is one of those fundamental technologies that’s changing the world around us,” Smith said. “It’s affecting all aspects of life from recreation to policing, to agriculture, lots of different applications. And we feel, as we try and help our community understand the opportunities of the future, help our kids understand what job opportunities there are for them or technologies they need to know about, doing a drone show helps as a very high-level large-scale public education program. It’s like a why moment. And I think whenever you’ve got a ‘why moment,’ people’s minds open up a little bit, makes them curious, how did they do that? And so my hope is that you know, it’ll cause people to just pay a little bit more attention to this thing that is clearly changing the world.”
What drones mean for Kansas
In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration passed regulations for the commercial use of drones. That opened the door to endless possibilities.
Grant Janzen, faculty for Unmanned Aircraft Systems at WSU Tech, says new uses keep popping up daily.
He says drones have the potential to change entire industries.
“One of the biggest ones that’s going to change like an entire industry will probably end up being like the surveying or even potentially the drone delivery,” Janzen said. “The surveying especially, because, you know, now sending a survey crew to map something for a week, we can now do it in a kind of a day or two, definitely cuts a lot of timescales.”
Drones are also huge for the agriculture industry because they help with spraying, analysis and data collection, ultimately increasing efficiency and profits for farmers.
The programs at local universities have also changed to keep up.
“In three years, we have completely added new aircraft, new cameras, new payload,” Janzen said. “So we have increased the amount of capability that we can do just so that way our students stay on top of the industry and continue to have the cutting edge technology.”
Ron Gonzalez, Ph.D., is a professor of aerospace engineering at KU and says, like anything, the technology has kinks and is up for abuse, but drones are becoming a part of our lives in many realms. But, the benefits will outweigh the risks.
“There are design problems, challenges to work with, but they’re going to come to us, Gonzalez said. “They’re becoming part of our lives.”
He says the future is very bright for drones, and they have made communities safer.
“We’re relying upon them evermore for footage of different situations that may be too dangerous,” Gonzalez said. “For drones that are coming down the line that are really so small that they can essentially fit in your hand, and the video quality is becoming better and better. And if they ever do interact with an inhabited aircraft, they just get swept out like a small gnat. So they’re used for fire spotting. They’re used for traffic observation. They’re used for delivery of food and delivery of goods.”
Drones also give the opportunity to eliminate dangerous jobs, such as agriculture pilots.
“One of the most dangerous professions in this country is to be an ag pilot, and they die from two major causes,” Gonzalez said. “One is flying into objects like powerlines and poles, and then the second one is from cancer from all of the chemicals that they use. So wouldn’t it be great if we get humans out of that operation? Instead of risking a person’s life, now you’ve got an autonomous plane just flying around, well, fantastic. That’s great. So it’s nice that the state of Kansas is front and center.”
Kansas will continue to benefit from these advancements. In the broad drone industry, he says Kansas is a leader in design, development and production.
“Between Wichita, where the airframes are made, and a lot of the avionics are made in the Kansas City area,” Gonzalez said. “The state will benefit tremendously from this entire industry. We hold around 20 patents that are relevant for drones, and they’re tested at sites that are in the state of Kansas, like Smoky Hill gun range, and on the military side and the civilian side, will benefit greatly from the drone innovations that are occurring right here in our own home state.”
KU also goes to elementary schools to conduct drone shows, teaching kids how to fly them. He encourages anyone interested to contact them.
Kurt Carraway is the unmanned air systems (UAS) department head at K-State Salina. He says before 2016, there wasn’t much activity outside the military. Most of the industry was focused on government services.
“It allows us to integrate those into a lot of different types of things,” Carraway said. “It promotes safety and promotes efficiencies. And so just a really exciting time right now, and all of that has really changed in the last 10 years. The incorporation of this regulation allowed for experimental validation of different types of applications. So really, if you can think of just about any type of industry, you can come up with an application for drones that would make elements of that industry either more efficient or safer.”
Also, the miniaturization of sensor technology and other pieces has made it easier to fit more and better technology in a small drone.
“You can put a lot of really amazing technologies that have a lot of implications for different types of commercial operations, such as infrared sensors and the regular traditional video cameras that we’ve seen with the miniaturization of that technology,” Carraway said. “We’ve seen a lot of capability that can be brought into those smaller systems.”
K-State Salina’s UAS program was the second in the nation, and previous graduates were doing military contract work. After 2016, they have endless options.
“We’re able to take something as simple as that technology, but being able to put it up in the air up to 400 feet up or very close to different types of areas that you want to be able to inspect as an example,” Carraway said. “It really is a game changer versus trying to do that either from the ground or sending somebody up to conduct a visual inspection.”
Carraway expects the FAA to pass more regulations permitting more activities in the next few years.