State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Gonna Buy Me a UAV

by on July 15, 2014 3:45 PM

I'm thinking of buying a Parrot. Or maybe a Storm. Or a Phantom.

They're all quite reasonably priced. A Parrot goes for $250, a Storm for $360, and a Phantom for $480.

The best part is I might not have to pay for them out of my own pocket. The Pennsylvania State University, which happens to be my employer, is developing a policy governing the use of university credit cards for the purchase of Parrots and Phantoms and the like.

Here is the email we received from Procurement Services:

Dear Cardholders,

Please be advised that the Risk Management Office, in conjunction with Police & Public Safety and the Department of Environmental Health & Safety, have requested that no one in the University community purchase or use any Unmanned Aerial Vehicles ("UAV's" or "drones"), pending the implementation of University policy relative to their use on campus and in University-sponsored activities off campus. We expect such policy to be implemented before the Fall semester. Procurement Services has implemented a temporary hold on such purchases, but we are aware that some units could simply use P-Cards to order such devices directly on-line...

Yes, it looks like in the not-too-distant future, the skies above University Park will be a-swarm with locust-like drones. Doubtless most will be deployed by my colleagues in the sciences to observe and measure one natural phenomenon or another. For example, Jack Langerlaan, a professor of aerospace engineering, reportedly wants a drone so he can learn more about how albatrosses fly.

Meanwhile, local restaurateurs and national mail and merchandise shippers may replace their drivers with drones to speed delivery of pizzas and packages to campus offices and residence halls.

And just this week, the New York Post, my favorite trashy paper, reported that private eyes are using drones to catch adulterers.

But how might those of us in the social sciences and the humanities avail ourselves of this technology to advance the educational and research missions of the university? Here is what I have come up with so far:

If I had a Parrot I would have it proctor my exams. When I patrol the aisles I trip over backpacks. This slows me down. While I sidle along the strait between Rows 1 and 2, the students in Rows 7 and 8 have ample time to check their cheat sheets. Instead of feeling like a grim, squeaky-shoed warden, I'll settle in with the New York Times crossword puzzle – I mean, plan a dazzlingly innovative lesson for the next class period – while my Parrot zips around keeping the test takers honest.

I can also envision using a Phantom to monitor out-of-the-classroom assignments. As a journalism instructor, I regularly ask my cub reporters to gather information from live human beings. But how do I know they're not pulling a Jayson Blair on me, inventing their material without ever leaving their dorm rooms?

I could require them to provide contact information for all their sources, as anxious editors began to do after the Blair affair. But it seems a simple matter for shirkers to use their friends' names and ask their friends to confirm that they said whatever the student-reporter said they said if I should happen to do a little spot-checking.

A much better system would be to have the Phantom follow them on their assignments to verify that they actually went somewhere, sought out someone other than their pals, and recorded answers to their incisive questions. I know many of you civil libertarians are uncomfortable with this kind of surveillance, but hey, if you're doing what you're supposed to do, where's the problem?

I would argue that this kind of covert monitoring wouldn't damage the delicate relationship of trust between reporter and editor nearly as much as overtly demanding a source list would.

Also, let me assure the worrywarts out there that I would never use my drone to assassinate a student, no matter how badly he dissed me on ratemyprofessor.com. Besides, according to this exchange on amazon.com, a Parrot has a very limited ability to inflict harm:

Q: Can this drone be equipped with bullets or bombs for the purpose of taking out an enemy?

A: As long as your payload weighs less than 300 grams and your enemy is a colony of ants, then yes, militarize away.

That said, if my proposed use of drones runs afoul of Penn State's procurement policy, I will revert to the drone I have long used in my journalism ethics class to explain Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative.

The students think I am torturing them but the Geneva Conventions barring cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners say nothing whatsoever about subjecting them to monotone lectures about 18th century German philosophers.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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