US limits on drone use may impede research, some academics say

Recent US limits ban private institutions such as Harvard from using small unmanned aircraft

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 9:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 9:41pm


American university and college professors are warning that US government restrictions on the use of small civilian drones are likely to hurt academic research.

In a letter to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday, 30 professors said a clarification the agency issued last month on rules for model aircraft hobbyists would eliminate the ability of researchers to use small, unmanned aircraft on low-altitude flights over private property.

Model aircraft have increased in sophistication and capability to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from small drones. And the price of unmanned aircraft has been dropping, making them more affordable for researchers and other users.

The FAA allows hobbyists in the US to use model aircraft or small drones so long as they keep them away from airports, fly them below 121 metres and keep the aircraft within sight of the remote-controlling operator at all times. However, commercial operators or people working for private colleges or universities were prohibited from using the same aircraft under the FAA's clarification of its policies, said Paul Voss, an associate professor of engineering at Smith College in Massachusetts who organised the letter.

"Under the FAA model aircraft rules, a 10-year-old hobbyist can freely fly model aircraft for recreation, while our nation's scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are prohibited from using the same technology in the same types of environments," the letter said.

The FAA has a process for academic researchers to obtain special authorisation to use drones, but only if they are affiliated with public colleges or universities, not private schools like Smith. Researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities, both private institutions, also signed the letter. But so did researchers from large public universities like the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin.

FAA officials had set so many barriers to obtaining special permission to use drones to conduct research, as well as limitations on how they were to be used once permission was given, that it was often not worthwhile for researchers at public universities to try to obtain permission, Voss said.

Researchers said they were particularly concerned that the FAA was telling drone operators the agency had the sole authority over use of the airspace from the ground up instead of 152 metres and above, which has been interpreted as the public airspace in the past.

The FAA's current interpretation of "national airspace" was so broad that it included "all airspace in the United States, including our campuses, private backyards, and possibly even inside buildings", the academics' letter said.

FAA officials didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.