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Unmanned systems students team up with public safety officials

December 20, 2017

A quest for community service became a search-and-rescue mission for two unmanned systems students at Indiana State University.

When challenged by their instructor Sam Morgan to do more community outreach, Ehren Staples, a junior unmanned systems major, and Matthew Johnson, a senior criminology major with an unmanned systems minor, approached Terre Haute law enforcement agencies about search-and-rescue assistance using drones.

"We met with the Vigo County Sheriff's Office, Terre Haute Police Department and Vigo County Emergency Management Agency, and they were all very interested in starting their programs," Staples said. "From there, it just took off. After our first initial contact with them, we just kept up communication. The sheriff's office and police department were already looking into starting search-and-rescue programs but just needed a little guidance. So we identified problems that we could help with and gave them a list of what they would need, and we did demo flights with them just to show what the drones were capable of."

As the ambassador of the unmanned systems program, Morgan says he wants his students to reach out the community to show them how lives can be improved with this technology.

"There was a lady who got lost south of Indy, and teams with dogs were searching for two hours. Then the fire department showed up with their infrared drones and found her in about 15 minutes," Morgan said.

State's unmanned systems curriculum is set on creating a group of operators who can go out and figure the best solution for whatever industry for which they work.

"We are getting our pilots trained to be able to perform a different task within an industry that is projected to be worth billions of dollars when all is said and done," Morgan said. "Search-and-rescues with the Terre Haute Police Department gives us the opportunity to provide them with them with the extra bodies they need at less the cost. There are about 10,000 pages of stuff to go through, and we boil it down to 10 hours of PowerPoints in two days."

Staples added, "We've saved them $10,000, because they were going to outsource to some other company, and we said we would do it for free or a much-reduced rate."

The unmanned systems program at State is listed as a top-five program in the nation and is growing rapidly. Search-and-rescue is a key part of Morgan's vision to expand the program.

"We would like to get a grant to build a hangar at the airfield, and they already said they will put one there as soon as we get the money for it," Morgan said. "It would be a large indoor training facility with a bunch of sensors mounted to the ceiling connected to controllers to help learn how to use drones with things such as infrared or looking at dirt or glass, etc., for a different type of feedback."

While search-and-rescue is a popular use of drone technology, there are also many other applications. Morgan said the three biggest opportunities are when a task is dull (such as staring at a house for 30 hours from inside an airplane), dangerous (instead of flying an aircraft over and getting shot at, you just fly a drone) or dirty (a place where you don't want a human to go).

"Drones are being used for movies, delivery, dropping off medicine," Morgan said. "Cell phone companies are looking into putting up a tethered drone with a couple antennas if their network is wiped out because of natural disasters; then, they can put a mobile unit up for hours, power line companies for the imagery. And the list goes on. People are paying for the data that you collect and whoever collects the best data for the cheapest price is going to be the successor in drone operating."

The Indiana State unmanned systems program, which started as a minor, expanded to a major a few years ago to accommodate both student interest and job growth in the industry.

"Unmanned systems have been around since the '50s. They advanced them in the '70s, and miniaturized them in the last 10 years," Morgan said. "They started using them for surveillance and watching people, and then they armed them. Now that they are handheld and affordable, you are starting to see more people using them without licenses, and we want to educate people on the rules that have been put in place so far."

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https://photos.smugmug.com/Events/Events-by-Year/2017/Summer-Honors-2017/i-Rrwq9dt/0/eb91feef/S/Unmanned%20Systems_Garcia_07202017-12-S.jpg -- Unmanned systems instructor Sam Morgan pilots a drone during Summer Honors 2017. (Jonathan Garcia/Indiana State University Photography Services)

Writer and media contact: Antonio Turner, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, aturner41@sycamores.indstate.edu or 812-237-3773

Story Highlights

Sycamores Ehren Staples, a junior unmanned systems major, and Matthew Johnson, a senior criminology major with an unmanned systems minor, approached Terre Haute law enforcement agencies about search-and-rescue assistance using drones.

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