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Peters, Moran Introduce Legislation to Support Educational Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) today announced they are introducing the Higher Education UAS Modernization Act, legislation that would support the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, by higher education institutions for research and educational purposes and workforce development. Under current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, colleges and universities are treated the same as commercial drone users, meaning students and professors  must apply for approval from the FAA, obtain a pilot’s license and are restricted to using only pre-approved aircraft.

“Unmanned aircraft are expected to grow into a multi-billion dollar industry over the next few years, but colleges and universities are training the next generation of unmanned aircraft operators and engineers today,” said Senator Peters. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation that will help reduce burdensome regulations that stifle innovation and restrict the educational use of drones. By making it easier for students and educators to use unmanned aircraft for research, we will be able to advance new technological applications, develop our workforce and grow our economy.”

Unmanned Aerial Systems are poised to make a tremendous impact on the American economy, and the future of UAS in Kansas is especially bright,” Senator Moran said. “From developing new curricula focused on the use of small UAS in precision agriculture, to participating in FAA’s Center of Excellence for UAS research and training, our state’s institutions of higher education are already working to harness the possibility of UAS and will continue to play an integral role in its development. I am proud to join Senator Peters in introducing the Higher Education UAS Modernization Act, which will help empower our students and educators to innovate and advance this important technology.”

Unmanned aircraft systems are one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. Over the next few years, UAS are estimated to create more than 700,000 new jobs and have an overall economic impact of $13.6 billion. Applications for UAS include law enforcement and military, oil and gas, engineering, traffic monitoring, broadcast news reporting, computer science, agriculture and film.

The Higher Education UAS Modernization Act would allow students and educators at colleges and universities to operate unmanned aircraft without requiring specific approval from the FAA by meeting the following requirements:

  • The institution of higher education adopts a UAS policy and designates a UAS point of contact that is charged with reviewing and approving all educational and research UAS flights.
  • Any educational and research UAS flight must be under the supervision of an experienced “operator in command” who will ensure safety.
  • Educational and research UAS flights are restricted to 400 feet above ground; cannot cause hazard or harm to persons or property; must be identifiable; cannot survey or create a nuisance on private property; must give right of way to full scale aircraft; and must operate above sites that are sufficiently far from populated areas.
  • If the UAS is involved in an accident causing injury to a person or property, such accident must be reported to the FAA within 10 days.
  • If the UAS is to be flown within 5 miles of a major airport or within 2 miles of any other airport or heliport, the UAS operator in command must first obtain permission from Air Traffic Control or, in the case of a small airport or heliport, the airport manager.

“The Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities thank Senators Gary Peters and Jerry Moran for introducing the Higher Education Unmanned Aircraft Systems Modernization Act. We strongly support this bill, which is critical to the work of colleges and universities that seek to safely conduct a wide range of research and educational activities involving small UAS,” said the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in a joint statement.  “Examples of this diverse and important work, much of which is federally funded, include developing new and improved aviation systems, as well as research and teaching in areas as varied as animal health, plant toxicology, entomology, engineering, architecture, sustainable nutrient management, soil science, biogeochemistry, and aerospace engineering. We greatly appreciate Senator Peters and Senator Moran’s recognition of the importance of such educational and research initiatives, not only to higher education, but also to our nation’s innovation economy.”

“We applaud Senator Peters and Senator Moran for introducing legislation that provides relief to higher education institutions, like the University of Michigan, so that we are able to successfully educate future leaders and innovators like Michigan's own Ed Lesher, one of the nation's most prominent aircraft designers,” said Jack Hu, Vice President for Research at the University of Michigan. “The use of unmanned aerial systems across our institution spans multiple schools and colleges and has broad implications that impact the safety of those in Michigan, across the nation, and feeds the nation's innovation pipeline.” 

“As UAS technologies become further integrated into society, it is important that higher education researchers and students are given the freedom to do what they do best, explore the boundaries of what is possible,” said Dave Reed, Vice President of Research at Michigan Technological University. “The proposed legislation would protect the environment needed to continue innovation in these areas.”

 “With the continued growth of the unmanned aerial systems industry, community colleges, such as Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) are uniquely positioned to provide support and training for occupations in this field. This legislation opens the door to innovative partnerships between two-year and four-year institutions that foster collaboration on the design and testing of new UAS platforms. In addition, this bill would allow NMC to greatly expand its own world renowned UAS program to better serve the learner and the business community, by allowing greater access to safe real-world training opportunities. We thank Senator Peters and Senator Moran for their leadership in recognizing the importance of providing a fair regulatory environment so that we as an institution of higher education can continue our mission of serving learners in our community,” said Marguerite Cotto, Vice President, Lifelong and Professional Learning, Northwestern Michigan College.

 “The University of Kansas School Of Engineering fully supports legislation that would provide faculty and students greater opportunities for flying and testing unmanned aerial systems (UAS). As a leader in UAS design and development, such a bill is critical to KU Engineering as we work to advance technology in this field of national importance. This would allow for more flights, more experiments, and more refining of our unmanned aerial vehicles. This results in better devices and systems, while simultaneously better preparing KU engineering students to enter the workforce and meet the challenges and demands of a rapidly growing industry,” Dean of KU Engineering Michael Branicky said.

 “MSU welcomes thoughtful congressional attention to the regulatory challenges posed by UAS operations in university research and teaching. An appropriate balance must be struck between regulatory burden relief, aviation safety and the safety and privacy of the general public. The legislation being introduced by Senators Peters and Moran should initiate important dialogue concerning the responsible conduct of research with these important new tools,” said Stephen Hsu, Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University.

The Higher Education UAS Modernization Act is supported by the Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Northwestern Michigan College, The University of Kansas, Wichita State University, Princeton University, University of Florida, Indiana University, Harvard University, The Pennsylvania State University, Duke University, Smith College, University of Missouri System and South Dakota State University.