UAS Courses Take Flight in Prescott 

by Michelle Tissot

Dozens of new, commercial-sized unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are on the way to Embry-Riddle Prescott for the purpose of outdoor flight training in UAS courses thanks to the FAA’s recent clarification of UAS operations for hobby or recreational purposes at accredited educational institutions.

Embry-Riddle Prescott student holds a quadcopter.

The May 4, 2016, FAA memo essentially lifts the ban of flying UAS outdoors when the UAS is part of curriculum not leading to flight certification and further clarifies section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). Previously, flying UAS as part of a course had been restricted to indoors where the FAA has no jurisdiction or as a recreational activity outside of class.

“This new interpretation is significant for our UAS degree programs. It means that students in our courses will now be able to test and fly commercial-sized UAS on our campus, in actual airspace, with faculty, as part of their curriculum,” said Dr. Brent Bowen, Dean of the College of Aviation.

Prescott’s UAS degree program offers complete instruction and hands-on application to students who desire to understand UAS aerodynamics and science, manage the operation of an entire system, develop policy, succeed in business, and engineer UAS and their payloads.

According to Bowen, the vision for Prescott’s UAS program can now be realized. He expects the first graduates will be setting up UAS systems for governmental agencies and first-responder organizations who already have authority to use UAS. “By the time that market is saturated, the commercial market should be open and our graduates will be poised to be the leaders setting policy, safety protocol, and improving and innovating the technology. The UAS industry has incredible potential.”

Quadcopter and controller outside of case

The application of UAS could extend through almost every industry but UAS policy and law is a complex issue. For example, in an effort to protect a citizen’s privacy, many states have ratified their own UAS laws pertaining to flight, which is problematic because airspace is governed exclusively by the FAA per order of Congress. Embry-Riddle College of Aviation faculty member Sarah Nilsson is an Arizona licensed aviation attorney who teaches these laws as part of her curriculum.

“This is long overdue,” Nilsson said. “The FAA was directed by law to figure out how to incorporate UAS into the U.S. airspace. The FMRA came out in 2012 which resulted in the FAA being inundated with questions and requests to explain their policies. In 2014, they offered clarification but the explanation did not encompass everything, especially this education piece. So for the last four years you have all these universities teaching UAS courses with great limitations, not really able to advance this new industry with the best trained talent. Now, in 2016, they have released this memo and it’s a huge step. It’s also very good news for us and for our students pursuing bachelor’s and minor degrees in UAS.”

Find out more about Embry-Riddle’s UAS program and Engineering programs.

Read the entire FAA memo.