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On the day the Federal Aviation Administration proposed fairly limited restrictions on the commercial use of drones, folks at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln demonstrated how useful the aerial robots can be.

“Drones are really good at taking pictures and videos from high up,” said Sebastian Elbaum, UNL professor of computer science and engineering. Everybody knows that, he said, and now they're moving beyond the obvious.

“Drones are getting a lot of negative attention right now,” said assistant professor of computer science and engineering Carrick Detweiler, one of more than a dozen students and instructors active in the Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned System, or NIMBUS, Lab. “We use the term aerial robots,” Detweiler said.

On Sunday, a Morrill Hall room full of elephant fossils also took on some high-tech trappings. Kids took turns at the controls of a mounted drone that turned and tilted. Others moved the fins of a shark-shaped balloon.

A tremendous amount of work goes into making reliable, safe, well-flying robots, said mechanical engineering student James Higgins. “Now the focus is … let’s make it do something interesting.”

At Sunday’s event, professors and grad students talked about the potential of using drones to survey crop health and even collect water samples.

“Drones can fly to lakes, ponds, oceans and other places that might be hard or dangerous to reach,” Elbaum said. “They can fly very close to the water and get a sample of 20 millimeters of water and see if it’s toxic.”

NIMBUS members took turns flying a drone outfitted with a thin tube for sucking water into an on-board reservoir.

Most of the drones on display were made by Ascending Technologies of Germany and have a 20-minute battery life. But drones come in all shapes and sizes.

“In the future, it’s not just going to be pilots and programmers using (unmanned aerial vehicles),” Elbaum said. “They will be used to transport something. Say you forgot your lunch at home or you want to deliver a medicine to someone.”

Meanwhile, Elbaum stressed, drone safety is the priority.

“We’re focusing on how not to hurt anyone or anything,” he said. “We’re creating technology so they fly close to the world and not parade on the world.”

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