TAMPA — The drone, no bigger than a pizza box, sat Friday in an open field.
Maryellen Allen stood next to the plastic machine clutching a remote control. She turned to her three colleagues nearby. "Want to see it fly?" she asked.
She flipped a switch and the drone hovered off the ground, its four propellers whirring.
Buzzing like a pack of angry yellow jackets, it rose higher and higher, wobbling whenever the wind picked up.
Minutes later, Allen directed it back to earth, where the drone landed with a soft thud. "Pretty cool, huh?" she said.
Allen is an assistant director at the University of South Florida libraries, which recently received a $75,000 grant to fund a digital renovation project that will provide students with additional computers and technological resources.
It also funded the purchase of two drones, said Bill Garrison, dean of the libraries.
The drones are painted white and weigh about 5 pounds, with a video camera attached to their underbelly. They cost $1,500 apiece and have red and blue wing tips. They're capable of flying 400 feet above the ground. And they look more like remote-control airplanes than intelligence-gathering machines.
"The education potential is limitless," said Nancy Cunningham, the director of academic services at the libraries.
Cunningham and Garrison watched Friday as Allen controlled the drone through the air during a demonstration. The officials said the drones will be available for student use in the fall semester, but with several stipulations.
Users must be students. They need to undergo training and pass a test to prove they can effectively operate the machine. Students can check out the drones only if they have a specific research plan.
Environmental studies majors, for example, can capture video of contaminated terrains, Cunningham said. Urban planners can scout out potential building sites. Architects can now "fly" inside their designs from the ground and locate flaws.
"It offers a whole new perspective," Allen said.
Drones are relatively new technology only now becoming more accessible to the public. That's why they are drawing attention from the Federal Aviation Agency, which has a specific set of policies for their use.
A spokesperson from the agency said Friday that flying a model aircraft as a hobby or for recreation doesn't require FAA authorization. Little other comment was offered.
Garrison, the dean of libraries, said the university will adhere to all regulations.
"It's not a toy," he said.
Zack Peterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or(813) 226-3446.