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Applied Math and Science Education Repository

The AMSER Science Reader Monthly aims to provide educators with a useful package of information about a particular topic related to applied math and science by combining freely available articles from popular journals with curriculum, learning objects, and web sites from the AMSER portal. The AMSER Science Reader Monthly is free to use in the classroom and educators are encouraged to contact AMSER with suggestions for upcoming issues or comments and concerns at

This month's AMSER Science Reader Monthly topic is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

Drones are Ready for Takeoff
Article by Richard Conniff
Synopsis and resource annotations by Max Grinnell

article photos

Drone aircraft have been used in war zones for a number of years, and experimentation with other uses is becoming much more common. Could drones patrol our nation's borders in the future? Well, they already do in certain circumstances, and this piece by Richard Conniff from the June 2011 issue of Smithsonian Magazine looks into new developments in this field.

The piece begins by describing some of the settings in which unmanned drones have been deployed, including monitoring marine mammal populations off the coast of Alaska and looking at the nuclear emergency this past spring at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant. These drones come in all shapes and sizes; some are as big as a passenger jet while others are as small as a sparrow.

The article continues with an examination of the proverbial ground zero for these drone experiments, which is centered around the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, Oregon. A key figure here is Tad McGeer, who runs the Aerovel Corporation out of rather modest surroundings. McGeer and his partner Andy von Flotow both earned doctorates in aeronautical engineering from Stanford University, and they started working on drones twenty years ago. Then they had the idea that their early civilian drone (named the Perseus) would be able to take sophisticated measurements of atmospheric chemistry to track the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctica. By the late 1990s, McGeer was working on flying a drone across the Atlantic, and in 1998 he was successful when one of his drones reached South Uist Island in Scotland. Soon the Pentagon came calling, but McGeer and his colleagues were more interested in focusing on civilian projects. McGeer and von Flotow's next project was for representatives of the tuna industry, whose fish-spotting helicopters had suffered a series of deadly crashes. For this endeavor, they developed the SeaScan, a drone with a camera turret and a user-friendly takeoff and landing from the deck of a ship. After developing the SeaScan, the US military adapted this technology to create the ScanEagle. The ScanEagle was a 40-pound surveillance device used during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, and its primary objective was to spot would-be assailants and send real-time video to troops on the ground. The ScanEagle is also relatively cost-effective, with a price tag of around $100,000. Today, the question remains as to how quickly this type of unmanned technology can find a place in the civilian market.

The big issue currently is that these drones face major regulatory issues. Questions about privacy and civil liberties need to be addressed regarding the use of these drones to monitor civilians. Accordingly, the nonmilitary portion of the drone market is only estimated to grow to $500 million a year by 2020. However, the military market will remain quite robust, as it is already stands at $5 billion a year.

Currently, the FAA is considering rules that would allow unmanned drones that weigh less than 50 pounds to fly below 500 feet with less regulation. The hope is that this will create a boom in innovative practices with these devices, and that thousands of new applications will be found for these drones. There is also concern about the cost of operation, as unmanned aircraft still require at least two people for their operation. It remains to be seen what will come of these innovations, but it will be worth keeping tabs on the work of Ted McGeer, Andy von Flotow, and the others who will surely follow.

Found below is a list of useful resources that will illuminate and enhance understanding of the topics found within this article. The first link leads to an excellent set of lectures from MIT that address the fundamental concepts behind aerospace engineering, astronautics and design. Also, there are fine materials for educators here, including interactive exercises and lesson plans. The second link leads to a primer from NASA that covers basic aeronautic terms, including drag, lift, and thrust. The third link will whisk users away to a set of tutorials and fact sheets from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association that deal with aviation principles, safety, and repair. Moving on, the fourth link leads to the National Center for Atmospheric Research's page on real-time weather data and satellite movements, which may be one of the most significant areas for civilian drone use. The fifth link will take interested parties to a great site from Professor Daniel J. Jacob of Harvard University which provides pedagogical tools for those teaching atmospheric chemistry, including Power Point presentations and slides. The final link leads to the NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, which contains information about the world of space weather and topics like the ionosphere and radio wave propagation.

Aeronautics and Astronautics
These courses, produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, introduce the fundamental concepts and approaches of aerospace engineering, highlighted through lectures on aeronautics, astronautics, and design. MIT’s Aerospace and Aeronautics curriculum is divided into three parts: Aerospace information engineering, Aerospace systems engineering, and Aerospace vehicles engineering. Visitors to this site will find undergraduate and graduate courses to fit all three of these areas, from Exploring Sea, Space, & Earth: Fundamentals of Engineering Design to Bio-Inspired Structures.
Virtual Skies: Aeronautics Tutorial
Drag, lift, and thrust are all seminal concepts in terms of understanding aeronautics, and they are explained in all their glory on this very edifying website. Created by the good people at NASA, this aeronautical tutorial will be useful to those persons studying the world of flight, or just those who want a bit of insight into the world of aeronautical engineering. The site itself is divided into eight sections, including "The Work of Wings", "Tools of Aeronautics", and "The Forces of Aeronautics". Within each of the eight sections, visitors will find short text passages, accompanied by various diagrams and illustrations.
SAircraft Owners and Pilots Association Safety Topics
The world of aviation can be a mystifying one, and for those who hope to start a career in the field of aviation, safety is a primary concern. Fortunately, this section of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) website is dedicated to Air Safety and provides a wealth of information. Here visitors will find resources by safety topics including Bird Hazards, Fuel Management, Weather, and Airspace and ATC. In addition, on the left-hand menu they will also find Interactive Courses, Webinars, Accident Analysis, Safety Publications/Articles, and much more. For students, educators, and professionals in the aviation field, this website will be a most welcome find.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research: Real-Time Weather Data
The National Center for Atmospheric Research supplies four types of real-time weather data: satellite, radar, surface, and upper-air. In the satellite link, users have the choice to view images in either one of five wavelengths or one of the three multi-spectral assemblages. The images can also be viewed by the latest image, small loop, or a large loop. The WSR-88D radars provide images with various products, backgrounds, end date and time, and loop durations. Visitors can view interactive surface data (METARs) as well as Skew-T/Log-P diagrams of winds and temperatures at various pressures. The site also offers maps of surface and aloft forecasts.
Educational Materials in Atmospheric Chemistry
Professor Daniel J. Jacob of Harvard University has compiled this very fine set of educational materials that deal with various aspects of atmospheric chemistry. He draws these resources from his own teaching experience, along with offering slides, presentations, and information from his own introductory textbook on the subject. Visitors can click through sections that contain resources such as Power Point presentations on halogen chemistry, aerosols, and global biogeochemical cycles. Professor Jacob has also been kind enough to include several versions of his 1999 textbook titled "Introduction to Atmosphere Chemistry" for general consideration and use. Finally, the site also contains resources on chemical transport models intended for graduate students.
NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center Education and Outreach
NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center Education and Outreach section offers helpful space weather information and papers as well as classroom materials. Students can find answers to numerous general questions about space weather and its effects on animals, Earth, and satellites. The website offers a glossary of solar-terrestrial terms, a gallery of solar activity, and articles about various space science topics including radio wave propagation, ionosphere, and aurora. Educators can find fun activities where students can make models of the sun through the art of origami, perform scientific analyses using online data, and much more.

AMSER Science Reader Monthly is published by Internet Scout at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in conjunction with the National Science Digital Library with funding from the National Science Foundation. If you have questions or suggestions please e-mail us at