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VOL. 40 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 14, 2016

The future takes flight over Middle Tennessee

MTSU program gives students head start on drone revolution

By Kathy Carlson

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It’s a good 10 minutes before class is supposed to start, but most of the students are already there, gathered around work tables to craft small multi-rotor drones with wood framing and tiny parts that look a bit like Legos to an untrained eye.

Many of these Middle Tennessee State University aerospace students are concentrating in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations. In this class, they’re building drones in teams and learning about the federal regulations that govern drone usage.

Recent changes to federal drone regulations are expected to make it easier to use small drones commercially, spurring demand for drone services and creating jobs.

MTSU aerospace student James Manni wants to start his own small UAS business. “Because it’s a budding industry, I can shape my own path,” he says.

Under the previous Federal Aviation rules, drone operators had to have a pilot’s license. People would sometimes receive permission to operate a drone, only to learn that they couldn’t do so because they weren’t licensed pilots, says attorney James Mackler, who specializes in unmanned aircraft.

Consequently, many people didn’t use the permission they had received to fly drones.

Under the Part 107 rules, which became final on Aug. 29, there’s a written test to become certified as a remote pilot in command of a UAS. A pilot’s license isn’t required, and that should increase commercial drone usage.

Part 107 doesn’t require applicants to show they can physically operate a drone, but the rule contains many safety requirements. People who do have pilot’s licenses may not have to take the Part 107 test.
Among other things, the new rule limits commercial use of drones over people, restricts drone altitude to 400 feet and prohibits night operations. There are rules about operating drones within the operator’s visual line of sight, a potential barrier to using drones for delivery purposes.

You must be at least 16 to operate drones, and certified operators must be retested every two years.

The FAA, however, has indicated it is open to allowing exceptions.
“The FAA is setting ground rules for operation of small drones but it’s also saying if you think you can safely handle the things we’re not automatically approving in Part 107, such as flying at night or over people, then tell us how you can do it safely and we’ll consider making an exception,” says John “Glad” Castellaw, co-founder and chief executive officer of Farmspace Systems LLC, of Alamo, Tennessee, which provides agricultural drone services and equipment.
Mackler’s law firm represents Farmspace, and he has a small investment in a company that also has a small investment in Farmspace.

Manni transferred to MTSU from Indiana State specifically for the drone program, approved as a concentration in late 2014. He holds a private pilot license and plans to take the Federal Aviation Administration’s newly announced test for drone operators – part of the new rule changes. He is on track to graduate in a year.

The new regulations, Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, “basically just opened up the air,” says Lori Duncan, row crop sustainability specialist with University of Tennessee Extension Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville.

Part 107 applies to commercial use of small drones, those weighing less than 55 pounds, including payload. Most drones in use these days fit within those weight limits, she and others say. The rules don’t apply to model aircraft and don’t apply to those flying for fun and not commercially, although other safety and operational rules apply.

Nashville attorney James Mackler specializes in law relating to unmanned aircraft as a member of the law firm Frost Brown Todd LLC. Regulation under Part 107 is “so much better. It still requires thoughtful management and in some cases professional advice. It’s a reset for a lot of companies.”

The reset comes because the FAA is taking a different approach to regulating commercial drones, one that recognizes that they will be used and sets out a path toward their adoption. Earlier regulations saw drones as exceptions to the general rules about what could be flown, and their use was permitted on a case-by-case basis.

It could take a long time to get permission under the old system, Duncan explains. “They were trying to work with (applicants),” she adds. “It took nine months for one of ours.”

The new approach to drone rules seems to be drawing interest.

In the first three weeks after Part 107 became final, more than 5,000 people passed the operator’s test, more than 13,000 have applied and 2,000 registrations a day for small commercial drones are coming in, the Associated Press reported. The numbers came from the FAA’s drone integration director, speaking in mid-September at the first meeting of the agency’s Drone Advisory Committee.

According to the same AP article, the FAA now forecasts there will be more than 1.3 million licensed drone pilots by 2020.

Even as newcomers to the unmanned aircraft industry embrace the new rules, others are looking at future regulatory changes, as well as how the drones themselves will evolve.

Both Mackler and Duncan say they can see the FAA adding regulation to cover drones that weigh more than 55 pounds. The larger drones are better suited for longer flights and carrying heavier payloads, Mackler says.

It’s likely there will be rules tailored to the smallest drones, loosely called microdrones and weighing between four and five pounds maximum, they say.

Microdrones pose less risk to people and property below, Mackler adds, and the FAA has given some indications it may develop additional regulations for them.

If regulators relax the line-of-sight requirement and make drone deliveries more likely, Duncan says, the industry will need new security and technology – and a whole different air traffic control system – to accommodate the change.

Doug Campbell, Middle Tennessee State University’s unmanned aircraft systems operations manager, shows a few of the drones his students get to work with. In addition to building and flying drones, his students are working with other schools within the university on drone-based research projects.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Drones themselves will have to evolve and improve. Battery life is a limiting factor for the drones, offering a maximum of perhaps 30 to 45 minutes in the air, Duncan notes.

Also, the quality of the drone-gathered data can be compromised by cloud cover, sunlight and time of day, she continues. The industry is working on ways to measure atmospheric conditions to adjust for the environment in which a drone is operating and produce higher-quality data.

Regardless of how fast drone rules evolve and how sophisticated the aircraft become, there will be areas that require judgment. In his law practice, Mackler advises government and business clients on setting up UAS programs “from scratch, in compliance with state and federal law.”

Classmates Joshua Leedham, left, Jud McCracken, who is auditing the class, Trace Marshall and Philip Seagraves, professor of real estate at MTSU, work together to build a UAS.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Companies creating their own program, with their own drone pilot, also can create their own internal training and certification program so that they feel comfortable that their pilot has the skills to operate safely, he explains.

If a client is a drone provider, it can set up another set of policies requiring its pilots, for example, to have a certain number of hours of skills training before they can work for the company.

As the industry grows, it will gain experience to develop additional applications. Aerospace faculty at MTSU are seeing how UAS students and faculty in other departments are working together to push the industry in new directions.

Doug Campbell, MTSU UAS operations manager, points to collaboration with the agriculture department, which recently received a grant from a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant for precision agriculture, agroecological education and research has allowed the UAS program to expand equipment and sensors.

“As other departments have a need to use UAS in their disciplines,” Campbell says, they contact the aerospace department. For example, the UAS faculty is collaborating with MTSU’s chemistry department on the possible use of drones in air sampling to detect the presence of hazardous chemicals.

MTSU student Joshua Leedham works on building an Unmanned Aircraft System during class.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“The use cases are as expansive as the imagination, with the appropriate respect to privacy and safety. We want to keep the airspace safe for manned aircraft. There are lots of places (we) can fly without contact with manned aircraft,” Campbell says.

The students building drones that day at MTSU show the breadth of interest in unmanned aircraft. One student is auditing the course to learn how his amateur radio emergency communications group might use drones.

Another, an MTSU real estate professor, is earning an undergraduate aerospace degree in UAS because the real estate industry is using them more and more. A third student is majoring in plant and soil science and minoring in aerospace.

MTSU’s students are “very engaged, very motivated,” says Campbell.

“Their creativity and ideas for UAS use help the program as well.”

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