By Carl Franzen
From the the Seattle Space Needle to a fireworks show in Florida to Martha Stewart’s farm in upstate New York, it seems like small, privately-owned drones are popping up everywhere across America these days, providing us with previously unattainable, breathtaking aerial views. They’re also causing trouble: crashing into heavily populated areas and flying uncomfortably close to hospitals and airports.
The US Federal Aviation Administration has struggled for years with how to handle the growing popularity of these unmanned aircraft while keeping people safe, but the agency’s latest attempt has raised the ire of an unusual group of critics: professors and model airplane pilots. As Paul Voss, an associate professor of engineering at Smith College who favors using small drones for teaching his students, tells The Verge: “even though we as a group are very much respectful of government, things [at the FAA] are going way too far and harming our national interest.” Last week, he and some 29 other academics from institutions including Harvard, Stanford, and Boston University, submitted an open letter to the FAA outlining their complaints with a new policy the agency released last month.
Voss says there’s no better way to learn about abstract concepts like aeronautics and fluid mechanics than by having students build and fly their own small drones. The FAA says in its new policy that it plans to regulate all small aircraft — from traditional remote-controlled model airplanes flown by hobbyists, to newer quadrocopters like the DJI Phantom and Parrot AR drones, which have some automation — by putting them into two main groups: those being used solely for recreational purposes (“model aircraft”) and those being used for business purposes (“commercial aircraft.”)