On March 13, Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) submitted a bill proposing increased FAA control over how universities handle unmanned aircraft. As explained by Dr. Ella Atkins, however, such a call for increased regulations has the strong potential to harm educational and research efforts.
Much of Atkins’ work has focused on autonomous aircraft technologies, and her teaching and research have been directly impacted by FAA regulations. As federal policies have evolved, she said, they have placed restrictions on universities that hinder teaching, prevent students from gaining valuable experience, and dramatically slow or halt research efforts.
Under previous regulations, anyone looking to operate a UAV, even for low, non-intrusive flights, was required to obtain a certificate of authorization (COA). While seemingly harmless, this process had two significant drawbacks: (1) all craft were required to operate within a set of GPS coordinates, which meant that science vehicles were unable to conduct research outside their pre-determined testing area, and (2) COAs were only available to public institutions, meaning private colleges or universities were barred from legally operating UAVs for teaching or research.
Regulations like these arose out of misconceptions about unmanned aerial vehicles. While UAVs are well-known for their failures, Atkins stressed that these stories are not representative of most UAV use. The work conducted by universities, for example, can be supervised by faculty and review boards and takes place in areas far from larger aircraft, such as at Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) fields or university-owned or -leased properties. Unfortunately, the amount of publicity received by UAV blunders, made primarily by uninformed hobbyists, has cast the entire category in an unfavorable light, and the regulations have continued to increase.
Why the Control?
How is it possible for the FAA to have so much control? Much of it has to do with their claim to property rights of American airspace. According to U.S. Code, Atkins explained, all navigable airspace is considered the sovereign property of the United States, and the FAA has the right to regulate it as they choose fit. Although this code was intended for large, manned aircraft at higher altitudes, with the advent of UAVs, the FAA now considers all airspace down to the ground navigable and has been imposing regulations as such.
Are they legally able to consider all airspace navigable, however? Supreme Court case United States v. Causby (1946) casts doubt on the claim. In this case, it was determined that navigable airspace is actually that above the “minimum safe altitude” of 500 to 1000 feet. In Causby’s situation, the aircraft passing overhead were only 83 feet off the ground, and the Supreme Court ruled that this airspace was actually part of Causby’s property and that the federal government did not have jurisdiction over it. Despite this ruling, however, the FAA operates today as if all airspace to the ground is actually under their authority and control. This raises issues and questions of its own.
The additional control is ultimately implemented in order to address Congress’s privacy and safety concerns regarding UAVs; however, these regulations are likely too strict to be reasonable. For privacy to be violated, a drone must carry a camera or recording device; however, the FAA takes this a step further and considers the vehicle itself an invasion. In addition, while safety concerns are valid, the FAA policies are extremely tight-gripped, which, while effective at managing safety, also stifles all practical use of UAVs.
The Advent of Test Sites
In order to address their safety concerns, the FAA has established test sites where UAVs can be flown legally; however, to use these sites, teams or pilots must pay significant fees and fill out extremely extensive paperwork. In addition, these test sites must be bringing in revenue and turn a profit. In order to bring in that money, the FAA is putting pressure on Congress so that any UAV reauthorization automatically favors these new sites. While this sounds like a solution, these test sites have the potential to bring university UAV research to a halt, and the Nelson-Thune bill is in strong support of them.
Not only are the test sites few and far between – the closest one to Ann Arbor is in Alpena, Michigan, a four-hour drive – but they are also expensive and require extensive paperwork. Besides being unrealistic for a research proposal, this process also makes student aerospace engineering teams’ use of test sites virtually impossible. These teams, which operate under the “design, build, fly” model, gather most of their data by frequently flight testing. If each flight took months of paperwork and hundreds or thousands of dollars to complete, it would be unrealistic to learn anything or prepare any craft for competition. This invaluable learning opportunity, which launches most students into internships and careers, would be impossible.
In addition, new developments from Section 2152 of the FAA reauthorization bill have the potential to institute even more limiting restrictions beyond the test sites: Under this proposal, no state would be free to pass their own laws regarding unmanned aircraft, but they would have unlimited authority to ban and fine violations of FAA policy. Although ridiculous-sounding, this in effect allows local authorities and landowners to ban or fine but not to authorize a thrown football if the FAA decides footballs are dangerous to airspace. It removes virtually all power from states and places it in the hands of the federal government. While this pre-emption may be useful to protect higher altitude airspace and airport areas from rogue drones, it instead goes a step further into regulating backyard and park airspace.
Unlike what is stated in the reauthorization bill, Atkins believes that local communities should be given the power instead. Communities are more able to address the needs of their citizens than a federal institution, and by allowing cities to establish “drone parks” and property owners to decide who flies in their immediate reaches airspace, more reasonable policies would be outlined to the benefit of all.
Should these strict regulations continue, it will remain difficult to impossible for both students and researchers to make valuable moves forward in the field of unmanned aerial vehicle research. In order to develop a policy that keeps both the interests of the general public and aerospace engineers in mind, policy makers must understand the realities of UAV flight and what is at stake for the future of engineering, education, and research.