A UND policy committee is looking to incorporate a small-scale air traffic control system into a campuswide set of ground rules for piloting unmanned aerial systems.
Committee chairman John Bridewell-a UND professor who serves as director of the center for UAS research, education and training in the university's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences-said the rule-making process has been ongoing since last spring.
Initial timelines for the work had aimed for completion over the summer, Bridewell said, but the various considerations associated with drone flights led to a gradual ramping up in the size of the policy document. By the start of the current semester, the committee was attempting to figure out which parts of campus should be off-limits to drones. It was at that point, as members were parsing out flight zones, the committee became aware of a California-based firm known as AirMap.
"This company developed a program for airports that will advise the tower if someone is flying in their airspace," Bridewell said. "Eventually, they said, 'Gosh, if it can be used for airports, why can't this be used for campuses?'"
The result of that idea is a mobile application now known as AirMap EDU.
Bridewell said UND is currently in the process of enrolling in the app's pilot program and is incorporating the system-as well as parts of a draft campus UAS policy written by AirMap-into the university's drone landscape.
Over the next two years, policymakers will examine the program's success while submitting information to AirMap to help fine-tune the product's workings. By the time the two-year pilot period is up, UND representatives will need to decide if they wish to continue with the flight-planning app.
At the moment, Bridewell said, the AirMap EDU system is a "passive" program.
"We only know if people are flying if they go to this app, insert the proper information and tell us they're flying," he said.
Before taking off, drone pilots first would use AirMap EDU to check the clearances of the area in which they hope to fly. For a host of safety reasons, certain parts of campus will be off-limits to drones. While the exact parameters still are being determined, Bridewell said the area west of the English Coulee likely will be a no-fly zone.
Drone pilots would be cleared to launch only once the drone has been granted permission to fly based on timing and location. As part of the preflight sequence, they would log their information to connect otherwise anonymous drones to their owners.
Before any of that can become reality, Bridewell said UND needs to submit GIS data to AirMap to properly tailor the app to the contours of the campus. He hopes to have that done soon in the interest of implementing the UAS policy by the upcoming spring.
UND Police Chief Eric Plummer, who is also on the UAS policy committee, said the rule-making process was prompted in part by the increasing popularity of consumer drones.
With more UAS units in the air, Plummer said the university is trying to respect the privacy and safety of people on campus while allowing pilots to operate their crafts.
"It's like mini air traffic control for our campus," he said of the AirMap system. "We do get calls once in awhile about systems operated near buildings or certain large locations on campus. People are concerned and want to know someone is being responsible, and right now we have no way of knowing if someone does or does not have permission."
At the time being, police respond to calls about UAS in person. If a system such as AirMap is put into use, Plummer said officers would be able to look up the area in question and identify the drone pilot remotely to confirm their authorization.
Both Bridewell and Plummer emphasized the app isn't intended to apply punitive measures to out-of-bounds drones. Plummer said the program will be an educational tool to promote safety.
Bridewell said the school's policy gradually will become a more active process as systems develop; in time, he hopes it'll be possible to know who's flying even if they haven't used the app.
"Some schools have severe penalties if you're flying unannounced, but I don't think that's where we'll go," Bridewell said. "I don't think it's meant to be the heavy hand of administration preventing people from flying-rather, we want the exact opposite. We want to make it easy to fly on campus, but we need means to know what's going on."