LANSING — Some higher education institutions in Michigan are seeking authorization to fly their own unmanned aircraft for testing and research amid a roiling national debate about U.S. military-targeted drone strikes abroad and privacy concerns at home.
Public entities like universities and police departments need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to use unmanned aircraft outside of a lab, even when flying under 400 feet.
Among them are the University of Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.
The FAA released an updated list of drone applicants — which included authorizations to fly for both schools — after a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering at U of M, said her department will apply for drone authorization within the next couple of months after the FAA made it tougher for universities to fly drones.
When U of M first applied five years ago, approval was almost “a given if you’re a university,” Atkins explained.
But regulations have since been tightened, forcing applicants to go through more steps that resulted in nine months of work to prove U of M is a public entity.
Hobbyists flying below 400 feet don’t face an application process, according to the FAA. But under current law, universities don’t fall into the category of hobbyist. Atkins said that’s a huge problem for colleges trying to research and test unmanned aircraft.
The FAA says it’s working to streamline the approval process.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette declined to comment about safety considerations or the new list of drone applicants.
A new federal report by the Government Accountability Office predicts that the market for unmanned aircraft will grow to $89 billion over the next decade after Congress set a 2015 deadline to open airspace to drone traffic.
The report said the FAA has issued 1,428 permits since 2007, and EFF said more than 300 of them are still active.