Justin Peligri: GW should take the lead in federal drone research

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The idea of an unmanned airplane stealthily shooting down civilians is a terrifying prospect. But for better or for worse, it is also a reality.

In recent months, the federal government’s aggressive drone policy – using aircrafts to pick off suspected terrorists in foreign countries – has raised some eyebrows, especially among Nobel Peace prize-winning President Barack Obama’s progressive supporters.

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Justin Peligri

That concern is justifiable: If machines are going to fight our wars for us, we need to know more about them.

By and large, there is still a lot the U.S. government – not to mention average citizens – doesn’t know about the notoriously secret drone program. Our society’s collective lack of research spending on this issue has spelled disaster on more than one occasion.

Last week, a drone crashed into an American battleship, injuring two sailors and causing about $30 million in damages. And the Department of Defense reports that debilitating drone accidents occur a whopping 50 times more than manned aircraft accidents.

When it comes to research on drone disaster prevention, there’s a lot of ground to cover. And as GW’s engineering program bulks up with a new Science and Engineering Hall, slated to open next year, it’s a prime opportunity for the University to take center stage.

Right now, GW researchers don’t have any active grants from the federal government to perform drone research. But this is an area researchers can build around.

It should be the prerogative of academic institutions – especially ones like GW, where politically active students can supposedly influence the “stroke of the president’s pen” – to use their laboratories to learn how to eliminate accidents from this deadly military program.

We’ve seen a few colleges wade in already, using resources from their engineering schools to give students research opportunities. The University of Alaska, for example, will serve as a testing site for drones due to its abundant space. And researchers at Virginia Tech will focus on areas like risk analysis and simulation.

The federal government has an interest in bringing academic institutions on board for drone research: Last year, Congress advocated for the establishment of research and testing sites across the country. And the Federal Aviation Administration responded earlier this month by tapping a few schools as testing partners.

These schools have been diverse in size, stature and location. But although GW’s highest-ranked engineering program is aeronautical engineering, which comes in at No. 39 according to U.S. News & World Report, there hasn’t been enough effort to bring this innovative area of research to our labs.

Pushing for drone research could also help students get jobs. Advocates suggest that the use of drones can benefit the economy – especially for the college-educated.

“All the people who will be involved in this will have to have college educations. And those who have college educations make better livings. All the jobs are high paying jobs,” Darryl Jenkins, a former GW professor and founder of the GW Aviation Institute, told me.

We’re not just talking about a few jobs, either. Jenkins, who is now the chairman of the American Aviation Institution, authored a report which argues that a proliferated use of drones both in the public and private sector could yield 70,000 jobs and pour $82 billion into the U.S. economy by 2025.

But that’s only if the federal government continues to expand the program. And that will only happen if top-notch researchers in the field decide to get their hands dirty.

GW can incentivize this. Administrators are planning new research centers over the next decade in subjects like genomics and sustainability. We’re missing out if drone research is not also at the top of the list. So in the engineering school’s push to hire new professors, bringing on specialists in this field are a clear must.

If politics is supposedly what GW knows best, and if administrators, faculty and students are making a $275 million commitment to engineering research in the form of the new Science and Engineering Hall, it seems only logical to invest in drone studies. To do otherwise would be foolish for both GW’s reputation and our nation’s future.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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