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UND gets creative with UAS: Federal regulations prevent students from flying drones outdoors

GRAND FORKS — Since federal regulations prevent University of North Dakota students from flying unmanned aircraft systems outdoors, the university has had to find creative ways for students studying UAS to practice.

The Federal Aviation Administration bans commercial use of UAS, commonly known as drones. Because aerospace students pay for their time flying to get their degrees, the flying is considered commercial, said Al Palmer, director of UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training.

“Eventually we want to be able to fly them out,” Palmer said.

UND will be pursuing an exception to the commercial flying regulations since it would use its UAS for education and training, he said.

The process takes time, but he said the university could hear about whether it gets that exception by spring 2015.

Palmer said he has not heard of any other UAS education program getting that type of exception.

Because all UAS programs are under the same federal regulations, UND’s students are not at a disadvantage by needing to keep their UAS indoors or on the ground, Palmer said.

And UND professors have come up with a few ways for their UAS students to fly.

“We have to figure out how to work between the lines,” Palmer said.

Almost since the university’s UAS program started in 2009, professor Ben Trapnell has had students building their own UAS, which they are allowed to fly under FAA rules because they’re not paying for it, Palmer said.

Students also can fly UAS for research, Palmer said, but the amount of flying time depends on the student and what he or she is researching.

Mostly, the students practice on simulators, he said. Each student must get 70 hours of simulation for the degree, he said.

Simulation is good for building mission control skills, or feeling what it’s like to fly the aircraft, but Palmer said he wants students to have more practice taking off and landing.

UND purchased some new UAS in May, called SandShark, which Palmer plans to have students use if the university can get an exception from the FAA.

More than 150 students are enrolled in UND’s UAS program, Palmer said. Sixty-one students have graduated from the program since it started.

Charly Haley
Charly Haley covers city government for the Grand Forks Herald. As night reporter, she also has many general assignments. Before working at the Herald, she was a reporter at the Jamestown Sun and interned at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Newspapers and the St. Cloud Times. Haley is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, and her hometown is Sartell, Minn.
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