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Future of drone programs unclear; MU to offer class this spring

Monday, March 17, 2014 | 6:35 p.m. CDT; updated 7:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 17, 2014

COLUMBIA — Earlier this month, MU drone programs had a brief reprieve when a federal judge ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration does not have the power to enforce a blanket ban on commercial drone use.

The FAA has since appealed to the National Transportation Safety Board, effectively neutralizing the judge’s ruling until the appeal is heard.

But it gave MU drone programs enough of a boost to put at least one class on the schedule this spring, though the class will have to abide by current restrictions in place. The class will feature drone flights indoors, where it is legal. Otherwise, acquiring a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration takes up to 60 days.

The College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources is offering an introductory drone application class after spring break. Students in the 1-credit-hour course will learn to pilot Phantom 1 quadcopters indoors at the Trowbridge Livestock Center at MU, where drone flight is acceptable.

“It’s a good place to fly for a couple of reasons,” said the instructor, Bill Allen. “There are large blocks of time available most Thursday and Friday nights, and it’s not a hard surface — if there’s a crash, it’s a much softer landing.”

The FAA has been fighting commercial use of unmanned aircraft since 2007, arguing that drones pose a danger to pilots in airspace. FAA guidelines restrict the use of drones to hobbyists flying them less than 400 feet away from airports and populated areas. Guidelines instruct universities to seek permission before deploying drones in civil airspace.

According to the administration, “The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground."

The decisive case began when the FAA fined Raphael Pirker, a commercial drone proponent, $10,000 in 2011 for using a drone to film footage for a University of Virginia commercial. Pirker then asked a judge with the National Transportation Safety Board to dismiss the penalty, which he did on March 6.

MU has several programs involving drones. The MU Information Technology Program sponsors Drone Lab, a project focused on drone research and usage.

The Missouri Drone Journalism Program is a collaboration of the Drone Lab, KBIA and the School of Journalism and is intended to explore drone applications in journalism.

Last July, MU received a cease-and-desist letter from the FAA for the Missouri Drone Journalism Program.

Matthew Dickinson, who runs MU’s IT Drone Lab program and co-founded the Missouri Drone Journalism project, does not foresee a quick solution.

“A full NTSB commission has to take place, and they’ll come up with some resolution to this,” Dickinson said. "I don’t believe it’ll happen anytime soon."

The Missouri Drone Journalism program has produced several videos with National Public Radio affiliate KBIA/91.3 FM, capturing video of flocks of snow geese and a controlled fire over the last natural prairie in Missouri.

“As far as journalism goes, if it's something like the Fourth of July, you can plan ahead for that,” Dickinson said. “It’s just a case of if that’s an effective use of time.”

At the Missouri State Fair, Allen has taught farmers about the efficiency improvements drones might create on their fields. Although initially skeptical, the farmers indicated that the drones would be useful for watching over sensitive crops and identifying stressed areas without manual inspection.

“They are looking at the potential advantages of SUAS (small unmanned aircraft systems) in monitoring weeds, insect infestation and efficiency in different nutrients,” Allen said.

Until the FAA appeal is settled, Allen’s course will be the face of drone education at MU. The five-week class, “SciAgJ 4301/7301,” will run from April 1 to May 2, with one lecture and one flying lab per week.

“Drones are going to be used by the next generation,” Allen said. “Our graduate students deserve to be on the frontier.” 


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