The University of Michigan's Solarbubbles aerospace engineering team attempts to develop the world's smallest unmanned aerial system capable of flying for 36 hours. Courtesy Solarbubbles
LANSING — Amid a roiling national debate about U.S. military-targeted drone strikes abroad and privacy concerns at home, some higher education institutions in Michigan are seeking authorization to fly their own unmanned aircraft for testing and research.
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.
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.
But both U-M authorizations on the list have expired, said Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering. Her department is in the midst of applying for another authorization within the next couple of months after the FAA made it tougher for universities to fly drones.
When U-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 bureaucratic steps that resulted in nine months of work to prove U-M is, after all, 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 has drawn an arbitrary line in the sand,” she said. “If you’re not strictly a hobbyist, you have to go through this.”
The FAA says it’s working to streamline the approval process.
Alison Duquette from the agency’s office of communications declined to comment about safety considerations or the new list of drone applicants.
Meanwhile, 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.
Montcalm County Sheriff William Barnwell said that while his county doesn’t currently use drones, they are something the department could use if it had funding.
“They would be a great idea for law enforcement to have access to that type of technology,” he said. “However, given our limited budgets up here, it’s probably unlikely that we’re going to be using them anytime soon.”
But for all their promise and potential uses — of which experts say there are many — domestic drones make a lot of people uneasy.
Advocacy groups like the EFF and American Civil Liberties Union warn that legal gray areas could inch the U.S. ever-closer to a “surveillance state” if laws aren’t updated to account for growing technology.
No federal law currently requires warrants for aerial surveillance, according to the groups.
And while Montcalm County may not have the money, many of the new drone approvals nationally include police departments and other government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. That’s disconcerting for privacy advocates who say the potential for unwarranted surveillance and other misuse is great.
It’s also a delicate time for drones after the recent leak of a secret Justice Department memo revealed the Obama administration’s claim of legal authority to use them to assassinate U.S. citizens abroad without formal charges or trial, even when the targets aren’t actively involved in a plot to attack the United States.
Still, civil liberties groups and drone advocates both say unmanned aircraft can have many legitimate uses.
For example, Tom Brady, co-founder of SkySpecs LLC in Ann Arbor, develops unmanned vehicles for a different kind of surveillance.
The company produces them to inexpensively inspect hard-to-reach places like bridges and wind turbines.
Brady said its small unmanned aerial systems (UAS), only 30 inches across, can navigate through tight and narrow spaces to collect aerial data using a complex combination of laser navigational systems and computer vision.
He said using UAS to inspect bridges could help avoid calamities like the 2007 Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people and injured 45.
“There’s a lot of good that can come from these things,” he said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the integrity of the operator.”
A number of students at U-M have tested their UAS in the past for groups hosted by its aerospace engineering department.
One university group — the Solarbubbles team, which started in 2006 — says it’s trying to design the world’s smallest UAS capable of flying for 36 continuous hours. But the group hit a legal stalemate after its FAA permits expired, barring its drones from flying outdoors, U-M’s Atkins said.
The group won first place in a 2012 international competition and set an informal world record for long-endurance flight. The team continues to fly in a limited airspace at Camp Grayling, in Grayling.
Atkins said she hopes students can resume testing outdoors in Ann Arbor once they receive flight authorization.
And while she agreed with the ACLU’s privacy concerns to some extent, she also said the benefits of drones far outweigh any negatives, with what she views as the potential for improvements in environmental surveillance, crop dusting, pipeline and power line inspection and virtually “everything that connects us.”
Meanwhile in Traverse City, students at Northwestern Michigan College can fly their unmanned aircraft in a small field outside the city where no manned vehicles are permitted to fly. The college’s FAA permit remains active.
Its program teaches students the applications UAS have outside of a war zone and how to fly them, said Tony Sauerbrey, the college’s unmanned aerial systems program director.
“It would be a shame if states started passing laws saying that law enforcement can’t use these at all, because it’s such a tool that could really help a lot of people,” he said.
And he said that civil liberties groups’ fears might be overblown.
“When people hear that the CIA is using these things in the military, it kind of creates a little bit of a natural fear when they hear that law enforcement is going to have it. The reality is that a lot of these things can only fly for about 15 to 20 minutes, and it’s going to be pretty hard to surveil people,” Sauerbrey said.
However, the ACLU reports that some military-grade drones use sophisticated solar technology that allows the aircraft to stay aloft for days.
Legislative director Shelli Weisberg at the ACLU’s Detroit office said the fact that aerial surveillance doesn’t require a warrant is particularly alarming. “We think there has to be a warrant for their use, and that warrant should be time-sensitive” and not open-ended.
The organization is working with Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, to address that issue, she said.
Weisberg said the state needs to update privacy and technology laws so misuse isn’t possible.