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Professors Are Worried an FAA Drone Ban Will Kill University Programs Nationwide

Professors from Harvard, MIT, Duke, and a slate of other research universities make the case for drones.

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A Federal Aviation Administration ban on commercial drones would kill dozens of drone programs at universities across the country, a group of professors told the agency late last week. 

In a letter addressed to the FAA (embedded below), professors who study the use of drones at Smith College, Harvard, MIT, the University of Michigan, Duke, Stanford, and 10 other universities said that any ambiguity from the FAA about who can use drones and for what purposes is probably going to cause universities to shut down their drone programs, because they're worried the FAA would crack down on them.

The group wrote the letter because the FAA is trying to reinterpret a law Congress passed in 2012—one that required the FAA to write regulations allowing the use of drones—to make certain hobbyist and commercial uses of them illegal. 

"This novel interpretation could have serious and severely detrimental impacts on education and research in the United States," the professors wrote.

One of the main reasons for that is that the FAA hasn't really defined what a "model aircraft" is. Right now, the agency says that a model aircraft is basically any object that flies through the air that could cause harm. You can see why that might be problematic.

Meanwhile, a federal judge has ruled that that interpretation is overly broad, but the agency is moving forward with it anyway while that case is being appealed. The FAA also says that it has to clear any "commercial use" of drones, but doesn't really define what a commercial use is.

"It is not even clear, for example, what constitutes a model aircraft," the professors wrote. "Could our students and faculty continue to have a model aviation club, or would this be a commercial activity since tuition is being paid? If a student designs a novel Frisbee and it flies into a public road, does this now warrant a [government] investigation?"

That might sound ridiculous, but the FAA has already sent two cease-and-desist orders to public universities who had started drone journalism campaigns. Both of those schools have temporarily stopped their programs while the whole mess gets sorted out. 

Drones "make valuable contributions to environmental science, Geographic Information System mapping, filmmaking, archaeology, agricultural science, and many other fields," the professors wrote. "We believe that free and open access to this technology is absolutely essential to our nation's continued leadership in aviation, to our future economy, and to our long-term security."

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