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What goes up

Federal restrictions on the use of drones by US researchers threaten an increasingly productive tool. The scientific community must speak out while there is a chance to change matters.

When US regulators ordered the journalism programme at the University of Missouri in Columbia to stop using camera-carrying remotely piloted aircraft last year, researchers around the country watched in alarm. The drones had been flown over private property, with the consent of the landowner. They had remained below 120 metres’ altitude to avoid interfering with larger aircraft. Most thought that such flights would be legal.

They are not, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It is well known that the agency has largely banned commercial drone flights, pending the development of regulations to ensure their safety. But, as we report on page 239, many scientists did not realize that the agency considers research and education at private universities to be ‘commercial’ activities. It is an unfortunate and distorted definition that threatens research programmes in a wide swathe of disciplines. Scientists must speak out to make the FAA aware of these impacts.

There is much to say. The FAA has an unfeasibly narrow definition of those eligible to apply for special permission to fly unmanned aircraft. The agency has applied its historical division between government- and civil-operated aircraft to universities, creating a nonsensical distinction between public universities that receive a substantial amount of government funding and private universities that do not. Researchers at public universities are eligible to apply for an exemption to the commercial flight ban; researchers at private universities are not.

It is clear that the FAA has a difficult job. Technological advances are making drones increasingly appealing for everything from police work to package delivery. The agency must forge regulations that will ensure the safety and propriety of the machines and how they are used. A smattering of drone accidents — including the crash of a tourist’s drone into a famous hot spring in Yellowstone National Park on 2 August — underscore the importance of these regulations. The agency should also take care not to hamper the burgeoning field’s development.

Researchers must make their needs heard amid the clamour of lobbyists from industrial-drone manufacturers and aeroplane-pilot unions. Yet many researchers remain unaware that their work is threatened. Some continue to fly their machines in blissful ignorance of the FAA’s rules. Others knowingly flout the guidance.

The community needs to spread the word — both to its own members and to the FAA — about the threats to research if drone use remains restricted. On 23 June, the FAA announced guidance intended to clarify its stance on drones, and outlining the distinctions that concern researchers. That document is open for public comment until 23 September, providing a clear opportunity to voice concerns to the agency.

The FAA is hard at work developing its regulations for drones, and intends to release an initial draft before the end of the year. That draft will also be open for public comment, but scientists need not wait until then to offer the agency their input. It is important to guide the discussion before it is too late to change its course.

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US drone research hits regulatory turbulence 2014-Aug-15

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What goes up. Nature 512, 231 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/512231a

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