Look Who's Flying Drones in State Skies

April 27, 2012, 4:45 AM

Newly released Federal Aviation Administration documents show one entity in the state of Michigan has been authorized to fly unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace.

State police? The FBI's Detroit office? Your local sheriff? Negative.

It's the University of Michigan.

But the school hasn't been spying on Hash Bashers on the diag or Mark Dantonio’s latest defensive schemes in East Lansing.

Students and faculty at UM’s Aerospace Engineering Department, however, are doing cutting-edge research that could have wide-ranging commercial and military applications.

The prospect of unmanned aircraft, like the drones used to hunt down al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, flying through domestic airspace sounds like the stuff of dystopian science fiction. And there are real concerns.

“Drones pose questions about privacy,” said Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “As drones and cameras become more sophisticated and smaller, it’s possible we’re being surveilled without knowing it.”

With those concerns in mind, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Federal Aviation Administration to win access to information about unmanned aircraft flying in U.S. airspace.

According to two lists released to the EFF, UM was the only Michigan entity with Certificates of Authorization to fly unmanned aircraft. Those COAs, documents say, has since expired.

The FAA documents don’t offer any insight into why organizations from universities to federal agencies to local police departments are or were flying domestic drones. Given concerns about civil liberties, that’s a problem for groups like EFF.

According to Professor Ella Atkins, the Aerospace Engineering Department flies small unmanned aircraft indoors and in restricted airspace at Fort Grayling (where FAA approval isn’t necessary). They also had authorization to fly at UM’s research facility at Lake Douglas and over Grand Traverse Bay. However, UM researchers never used the Grand Traverse permit.

Unmanned aircraft tested by UM students and faculty included a student-designed glider, a craft known as a Funtana, and the “Flying Fish,” the first unmanned autonomous seaplane ever developed.

According to a December 2007 article in Science Daily, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency successfully tested the Flying Fish over Monterey Bay in California.

The Flying Fish features a solar harvesting system that could allow it to operate without using fossil fuels. It’s an innovation that could make unmanned aircraft useful to a number of industries.

“Traffic helicopters could be replaced, while border patrols and pipeline inspections could be done with no fossil fuel-use with unmanned aircraft,” said Atkins.

She also points out that the university’s unmanned aircraft are similar to radio-controlled hobbyist aircraft, which don’t require FAA certification.

“Because the university is the owner of the aircraft, we have to get COAs,” Atkins said. “Even if it is the same as RC aircraft.”

The fine line between unmanned aircraft requiring FAA authorization and consumer-grade radio-controlled planes complicates civil liberties concerns.

“There’s a fear that everybody is going to be spies,” Atkins said. “But you can do that already with a hobbyist’s unmanned aircraft.”

What’s more, she says the issue could make it difficult for U.S. researchers and entrepreneurs to compete with foreign firms.

Therein lies the rub with FAA’s reluctance to disclose information about unmanned aircraft authorizations.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jeschke acknowledges there are legitimate uses for these crafts, adding that the EFF isn’t seeking to crackdown on scientific research.

“We’re not saying if you fly a drone, you’re a bad person,” she said.

At the same time, potential threats to our right to privacy created by a new technology that allows for surreptitious surveillance is always a concern. Perhaps the best way to ensure legitimate concerns don’t give way to paranoia that threatens legitimate research and innovation is greater transparency.

A public left in the dark will likely fear the worst.

“This is the first step,” Jeschke said about EFF’s effort to obtain the lists of FAA-approved drone operators. “We didn’t even know who is authorized or how many drones are in the air. Hopefully, we’ll get more records.”

Photo of Flying Fish seaplane from the University of Michigan Aerospace Engineering Department website.

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