Mike Brestovansky, Assistant Campus Editor
A remote-controlled helicopter seems like a fun gadget for hobbyists and bored students alike, but budding aerial photographers and RC pilots should be cautious: they might need a pilot’s license for that.
That’s what happened to a Virginia student earlier this year, said James Grimsley, associate vice president for research. The student charged people to take photos from his RC helicopter, which violates the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations surrounding commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems.
As the Federal Aviation Administration plans to alter its regulations surrounding unmanned aircraft systems, OU’s Student Government Association introduced a resolution to change the university’s own policy to make it easier for researchers to use the systems. The resolution called the current policy “oppressive to hobbyists, cinematographers, researchers, and any one else who finds pleasure…or business through the use of an [unmanned aircraft system].”
“The university is concerned for the safety of students and faculty,” Grimsley said. “But at the same time, we want to give them the freedom to explore.”
As a public entity, a very strict authorization process limits OU’s use of unmanned aircraft systems. Because of this, only one OU project uses unmanned aerial vehicles: atmospheric sampling for meteorological research, Grimsley said.
The drone used for this research, a Multiplex FunJet, is a small, foam airplane with a 31-inch wingspan.
“If a 12-year-old kid wanted to fly this, he could easily, so long as he was in a [Federal Aviation Administration]-approved field,” Grimsley said.
However, for OU researchers, you have to have a licensed pilot, go through training, get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, get a certificate of authorization and get audited and inspected, Grimsley said.
“It’s a major operation,” Grimsley said.
However, once the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations change, Grimsley said OU faculty envision unmanned aircraft systems for projects from biological surveys to motion pictures.
“It’s not that far-fetched…that we could have [unmanned aircraft systems] deliver our mail in the future,” said Ken Carson, director of the Department of Aviation. “All we need is a pro-[unmanned aircraft systems] community to…invite that into their city.”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s new guidelines give more freedom to hobbyists and public entities to operate unmanned aircraft systems, Carson said. The regulations were projected to be implemented by the end of the next fiscal year, but Carson said the complexity of the approval process would probably delay them further.
“All politics are local,” Carson said. “Policies will differ between local, state and federal jurisdictions. Some communities may embrace [unmanned aircraft systems] and some may not.”
While unmanned aircraft systems can be beneficial to many different industries, many people look at them with mistrust, Grimsley said. People worry about drone strikes, trespassing, careless pilots and having their jobs taken by machines.
“As any new technology emerges, society will have to weigh the risk of danger against progress,” Carson said. “People won’t be displaced…[unmanned aircraft systems] will be used for the four D’s: dull, dirty, dangerous and difficult.”
Grimsley added that part of the distrust for unmanned aircraft systems can be attributed to the fact that they share the same name as a Reaper drone armed with Hellfire missiles, when in reality many of the unmanned aircraft systems OU faculty would use are about four pounds.
While OU currently only offers theoretical courses about drones, Carson said that students should stay abreast of how unmanned aircraft systems operate.
“It’s an empowering technology for a lot of industries,” Carson said. “If you [understand how they work], that’s one more notch on your resume.”