In an effort to study the flight of certain birds, Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering Jack Langelaan applied to the Federal Aviation Administration to use a drone in his research at Penn State, university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said via email.
He applied for a Certificate of Authorization to fly a small, unmanned aircraft as part of his research funded by the National Science Foundation, Langelaan said via email.
But Langelaan said the application was denied.
“A certificate of authorization is reserved for public entities, and according to the FAA, Penn State is not a public institution,” Langelaan said.
Langelaan said his research surrounds how certain birds are able to fly long distances.
“This research is concerned with how Albatrosses fly,” he said. “They do something called dynamic soaring, and it lets them fly a long way, thousands of kilometers, without flapping their wings.”
Langelaan said the drone was necessary to try and replicate Albatross flight.
“We’re trying to duplicate that in a small robotic aircraft, and this will give us a lot of insight into bird flight dynamics,” he said.
Out of the 81 institutions that applied for a certificate of authorization, 36 are universities and community colleges, which are all using an unmanned aircraft for their research, Langelaan said.
The drone would have aided in the “fundamental research,” because it would have allowed for flight tests to be conducted, Langelaan said. But now, because of the rejection, these tests cannot be held.
“Note that flight tests means over farm fields far away from any buildings and people,” Langelaan said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information request because it was “concerned that the low operating cost of unmanned aircraft will make ubiquitous, or warrantless, aerial surveillance possible,” Langelaan said.
Langelaan said he does agree with this concern, but “ubiquitous surveillance is already possible using all the [Closed Circuit Television] cameras that are placed in on buildings.”
The cameras are not necessarily on campus, but they are present in certain places.
“Next time you walk around a major city, take a good look at the corners of buildings. Those black spheres on white mounting brackets are TV cameras,” Langelaan said.
There has not been and there is not currently research being done at Penn State concerning unmanned flying drones, Powers said.
The EFF could not be reached for comment and the FAA had no comment on the situation.