CEHC Launches Drone Lab in Page Hall Basement
New testing grounds for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – commonly known as drones – were recently unveiled on UAlbany’s Downtown Campus.
The College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity hosted an open house last month to launch a two-story, 1,700-square-foot drone lab in the basement of Page Hall. The space, enclosed with netting and with black rubber flooring, offers a controlled, indoor environment for UAV flight training, along with land-based robotics research and educational opportunities.
Vacant for Decades
Last summer, Brandon Behlendorf, an assistant professor at CEHC, was leaving his office in Richardson Hall when he stumbled upon an aging stairwell on the north corner of the second floor. Wondering where it led, he carefully made his way down five stories to a locked door in the basement. Through a small, dust-filled window, he saw a basketball gymnasium.
“Wouldn’t this be a great space to fly drones?” he thought.
The Page Hall basement was vacant for about 40 years prior to its drone lab renovation. (Photo on left taken last August by CEHC staff member Matt Roche; Photo on right taken by Patrick Dodson in same location).
The Page Hall basement was constructed as a gym when the building first opened in 1929. It served as the home for UAlbany basketball games through the mid-1960s, as well as a venue for theater productions, school dances and physical education classes. The gym had been used for storage for the past 40 years.
Behlendorf, who is co-instructing a course this semester with Albany Law Professor Robert Heverly on the legal, ethical and operational impacts of unmanned systems, quickly met with CEHC Dean Robert Griffin to find out how they could gain access to the space.
“Until now, we were offering hands-on drone flight training to our students outside of the Downtown Campus, which presented a number of challenges due to weather conditions and outdoor flying regulations,” said Behlendorf. “The Page Hall gym offers us a year-round space, which is covered, heated and insulated.”
“In 2016, the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] estimated that 7 million drones will be sold in the United States by 2020. That includes 2.7 million sold for commercial purposes. The future is going to involve drones; it is going to involve ground-based robotics. We need to be invested in this technology with our students,” he added.
The college worked with the Office of Facilities Management to turn the gym into an operational drone flight-testing zone. Under the direction of CEHC Professor of Practice Michael Leczinsky, the lab also will integrate with the college’s makerspace, allowing students to design their own UAVs, prototype them using 3D printers, and fly them within the facility.
“The vision for this lab was brought to life by the hard work of Brandon, Michael and our amazing partners in facilities,” said Griffin. “This is an opportunity for our college to tap into an emerging technology. We can be at the center of the drone industry for Albany, the state of New York, and even the country.”
Along with the campus community, CEHC views the drone lab as a “resource for first responders, industry partners and local high school students,” according to Griffin.
The college’s National Center for Security & Preparedness (NCSP) already leads drone operations training for law enforcement, EMS and fire agencies at the State Preparedness Training Center in Oriskany, N.Y. The drone lab will provide new capabilities for the center’s training and research and development efforts. Prior to the official launch, NCSP connected its public safety experts with CEHC students for an 8-hour course in the new space.
Joseph Scaperrotta, a 2016 graduate of CEHC’s Informatics program, now works at Mechanical Testing Inc. (MTI) in Saratoga Springs, an authorized DJI drone dealer. His company donated a dozen drones and accessories – which totaled about $2,100 – to the drone lab.
MTI’s CEO, Eileen Venn, also graduated from UAlbany with a B.S. in Business Administration.
“We saw an opportunity to work with students at our alma mater who represent the future generation of this up-and-coming industry,” said Scaperrotta. “MTI is excited to be involved with this facility moving forward as both a drone provider and educator.”