They Argue That the Tight Limits Stunt Scientific Advancement
A group of U.S. professors in disciplines ranging from atmospheric sciences to archeology joined the backlash against the government’s tight limits on the commercial use of drones, saying the policy is stunting scientific advancement and research potential.
In an open letter submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday, the 29 academics argue 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.”
The letter is the latest salvo in a widening campaign for freer commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, which the FAA now effectively bars, and it adds to the debate about the agency’s authority over airspace low to the ground. The letter specifically responds to a recent FAA interpretation that legitimizes the agency’s curbs on drone use by asserting that it has authority over “any contrivance invented, used or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.” That assertion has riled many operators of model aircraft and drones—which FAA policy treats as the same—who say that for years they have used the devices for business or research purposes without issue.
The professors, from institutions including Harvard, Stanford, Duke and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, say the FAA should have talked to stakeholders such as themselves before enforcing such a broad rule. The scholars were assisted by Brendan Schulman, a lawyer who has defended multiple cases involving FAA drone regulation.
Paul Voss, the letter’s lead author and an engineering professor at Smith College, said he used to teach an aerial-vehicle design course that has been discontinued because of concern about conflicting with the FAA policy.
“We’ve canceled courses, we’ve stopped teaching certain areas in my expertise,” Mr. Voss said. “It’s draconian.” He added that the FAA’s restrictions are especially difficult for professors at private universities, which can’t apply for the FAA waivers for research using drones that are available to public universities.
The FAA allows government entities including police departments and public universities to apply for permission to use drones in limited cases, but it has barred commercial use in all but a tiny handful of cases, even as demand for drone use rises in industries from filmmaking to farming. Critics like Mr. Schulman complain the policy is both limiting and confusing.
The FAA issued its policy interpretation about a month ago. Its public comment period initially ended Friday but has now been extended until Sept. 23. The FAA and the Transportation Department have received more than 29,000 comments so far, according to the website where they are posted.
The FAA has said its limits are necessary to ensure airspace safety. It is working on new rules governing the devices. An FAA spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter, saying on Saturday that the agency would respond once the comment period closes.
In the letter, the professors ask the agency to halt its current policy and to focus policies instead on people who use drones dangerously.
The Wall Street Journal