Feds’ Drone Regs Draw Profs’ Fire

Some professors are worried that the federal government will stifle their ability to teach and do research with unmanned flying machines.

In a letter sent to the Federal Aviation Administration last week, 30 professors argued that its recent pronouncements on drones would unreasonably restrict scholars’ ability to use the small aircraft for academic purposes, the Associated Press reports.

“To the best of our knowledge, no fatalities have resulted from academic research with model aircraft,” says the letter. “It is difficult to identify any other high-value activity that occurs in the outdoor airspace and has such an extraordinary safety record. Even baseballs are statistically more deadly.”

Colleges have been trying to use drones—the peaceable kind you can buy online for a few hundred bucks, not the $4-million killing machines used by the U.S. military—for academic purposes, but the FAA has been strict about enforcing regulations.

Last year it sent cease-and-desist letters to professors at the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri who were teaching in the emerging field of “drone journalism.” The agency told the professors that, because their universities are public institutions, they would have to obtain certificates of authorization in order to keep flying their drones.

The FAA also has tried to corral drone-related research by specifying test sites.

Last week’s letter, which is signed by professors at private and public colleges, argues that the government’s interpretation gives the FAA too much reach and should be reworked.

As part of a class or a research project, students might fly a small drone up to several hundred feet above a campus, within guidelines set by a university. But according to the government, the letter says, “these model aircraft are now deemed to be operating in the public national airspace system.”

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