For Peter Burke, a professor in UCI’s Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Department, flying drones is a natural extension of an interest in aviation that goes back to childhood.

“My brother and Dad were in the Air Force and I did model aviation as a kid,” he said. As an early adopter of drones, Burke now owns dozens of models, from the size of a Reese’s peanut butter cup to the three-pound DJI Phantom 4 that recently recorded a birds-eye video of Area 11, the Irvine Campus Housing Authority’s new housing development.

Peter Burke, Professor Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

For Burke, the Area 11 video project represents a convergence of multiple technologies, including the internet of things, big data and cloud computing. Because programming a drone — not to mention building one — requires such a diverse set of skills, UCI has established drone building as part of the curriculum for engineering undergraduates.

Inspired by a sister who lives in the mountains of Colorado, Burke recruited his students to build a drone that could map out WiFi signals in remote areas. “I think with drones, it’s going to be like the iPhone,” he said. “The business application of the technology will not be the hardware, but will be in the uses of the device.”

Burke advises novice drone pilots to focus on safety and privacy, and to be aware that flying the larger drone models involves some bureaucracy. Drones weighing more than 250 grams must be registered, and using a drone for commercial purposes requires a license. It also requires getting airspace authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration 90 days ahead of a flight.

Still, the process has been worthwhile for Burke. As the rules regulating drones catch up with the technology, he hopes to turn his hobby into a side business taking aerial surveys for real estate developers. For now, though, it’s just for fun. “My kids love it,” he said. “We fly a drone with a one-meter wing span in the Great Park, we have quadcopters flying in the backyard, and some the size of a candy bar flying around the house.”