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Questions arise after FAA says college students can fly small drones outside

NEW ORLEANS—A federal announcement this week that promotes students using unmanned aircraft as part of their education is drawing praise nationwide, including from UND students and faculty.

Michael Huerta, administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, announced Wednesday that students now can use small unmanned aircraft for educational and research purposes.

"Schools and universities are incubators for tomorrow's great ideas, and we think this is going to be a significant shot in the arm for innovation," Huerta said at Xponential, a major unmanned industry convention held this past week in New Orleans.

Prior to the announcement, students and instructors could fly the aircraft indoors but otherwise would need an exemption from the FAA to fly outside. Educating UAS students is treated like a business, and commercial operations of unmanned aircraft are prohibited without special permission, known as a Section 333 exemption.

"The problem of course is, to a large extent, they consider what we do to be a commercial operation," UND aviation professor John Bridewell said. "What this (announcement) is saying is if you're an institution, you don't have to get a Section 333 exemption, just go do it. But does that mean, in my class for example ... you can go outdoors and do it?"

Bridwell was in attendance at the conference during Huerta's speech. He told the Herald he already had heard a few interpretations of the announcement among attendees and would like to see more clarification. That clarity will likely come this summer when a set of operating guidelines for small unmanned aircraft is expected to be released by the FAA.

'Great step forward'

While more guidance is desired from some, many are still calling the announcement a positive move for the industry.

"This is a great step forward in the ever-expanding world of small unmanned aircraft systems," UND junior Connor Grafius said.

Grafius is enrolled in the school's UAS program and also attended Xponential. He serves as chief pilot for SkySkopes, a Grand Forks aerial inspection and photography company composed of mostly of UND students.

Grafius and other students would be able to operate aircraft as part of their education as long as they abide by rules the FAA has set forth for hobbyists, such as not flying more than 400 feet above ground and maintaining minimum distances from airports, people and buildings.

An instructor in UND's unmanned aircraft systems program, Bridewell said getting students outside and flying is critical to the school producing the best pilots it can.

"Take our manned aviation program. Well, if they couldn't get into an airplane and fly around, that'd be pretty difficult to learn how to fly," he said. "So we're kind of in that same boat. We have simulation and that type of thing like we do for manned aircraft, but there's nothing like a real airplane."

Keeping up

While Huerta's announcement may alleviate one of UND's challenges, there are others that include meeting the demand employers have for its students.

Unmanned aircraft use started with the military, but the commercial side of the industry continues to grow as researchers and businesses find more applications for the technology.

Bridewell said the shift was noticeable at Xponential, with some booths missing from major defense contractors.

"But there was lots and lots of activity because I think everybody is getting ready for small UAS rules to be put in place, and then everybody's expecting things to really skyrocket," he said. "Already, we have a greater demand for our students than we have students."

In the spring semester, UAS-related majors had an enrollment of 148 students, according to a UND Institutional Research report.

The program has seen continued growth since its inception in 2009, and Bridewell said one of its upcoming challenges is handling that growth. As the unmanned industry continues to evolve, programs at UND and other colleges also will need to do so to keep up with technology and standards.

In his Xponential speech, Huerta also acknowledged the schools, researchers and businesses that make up the unmanned industry need to keep pushing forward.

"I'm confident we'll meet tomorrow's challenges through cooperation, collaboration, through respect and through trust—and, above all else, a commitment to being creative in our thinking and flexible in our approaches," he said.

Brandi Jewett

Brandi Jewett is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald with beats focusing on northwest Minnesota, unmanned aircraft systems and East Grand Forks city government. A native of Valley City, N.D., 26 years worth of winters haven't scared her out of the state yet. Follow her work at grandforksherald.com, on her blog at droningon.areavoices.com and on Twitter and Instagram: @brandijewett. Send tips and story ideas to bjewett@gfherald.com. 

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