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Southampton Uni Offers Course in Drone Design

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Southampton University to Teach Drone Design

(Source: the Guardian; published Sept. 22, 2011)

The first postgraduate course in the design of unmanned autonomous vehicles is being launched at Southampton University this month as the global market for civilian and military drones expands into a £5bn-a-year industry.

The city where the Spitfire was developed in the 1930s has now become the first to build and fly a UAV created using laser-printing technology – a drone whose elliptical wings echo those of the Second World War fighter plane.

Academics at the university are working with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to develop swarms of micro-drones to study atmospheric and climate patterns.

The Southampton team is also in discussions with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which is interested in covert, aerial surveillance, as well as with the US Navy's disruptive technologies group, with which they are exploring the possibility of producing disposable drones that could be "reprinted" every day.

The production technique, known as sintering, uses three-dimensional printing technology to create solid objects out of cakes of powdered nylon, solidifying designs with laser beams.

UAVs are seen by many as a threat, as "Big Brother in the sky". The rapid proliferation of robotic technology for military and surveillance purposes has prompted calls for international legal controls to be imposed on the technology.

Attempts to develop "autonomous targeting" – where unmanned planes lock automatically on to what their on-board computers assume is the enemy – have reinforced criticism of supposedly pinpoint drone strikes in Pakistan that have caused civilian deaths. This week the US announced the expansion of its drone base in the Seychelles, for use in attacks on Somalia.

But the CIA's Predators and Reapers are no longer the only drones in the skies. In the last few years the variety of uses for UAVs has multiplied, diversifying from military surveillance or remotely operated missile systems. As well as working with the BAS, Southampton University is helping game parks in Namibia to develop UAVs that track endangered species.

Its MSc course, which has 12 students signed up for its first year, will not only cover the development and flying of unmanned aircraft but also the construction of underwater and land-based robotic vehicles. The course is expected to expand to 20 students in a few years' time.