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May 11, 2015

FAA taps Drexel to research commercial drone possibilities

Researchers will advise agency as it develops regulations for unmanned aircraft systems

Drexel University researchers have been selected to advise the Federal Aviation Administration as the agency develops regulations for the burgeoning commercial drone industry.

The FAA established the National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems to research ways to safely integrate commercial drones into the national airspace.

Drexel, one of the several core research institutions, is being tapped to examine challenges faced by air traffic control, pilots and drone operators. 

The relationships between those groups will be crucial when an abundance of drone operators join the already elaborate collaboration between air traffic control and pilots.

“We don’t have any clear understanding of how that interaction is going to work,” said Patrick Craven, an assistant professor in Drexel's College of Computing and Informatics. “There’s a lot of research that needs to be done there. We’re going to be crafting different simulations.”

The researchers will recommend emergency protocols, communication methodologies, training requirements and traffic flow standards.

“The photographer who wants to put a drone up 200 feet above and get a large wedding photo — that’s not going to be a problem,” Craven said. “The problem is going to be when UPS and FedEx start operating unmanned freight aircraft. That’s probably where it’s going to begin. They’re landing at Philly International. How do you operate that kind of scenario?”

Congress charged the FAA with developing regulations for commercial drones, which — with a few exceptions — have received licenses to operate. 

The FAA presented a draft of regulations in February, limiting altitude to 500 feet above ground and speed to 100 mph. The rules require operators to gain a special pilot certificate and fly only during daytime hours. They do not permit out-of-sightline operation, a factor that could hamper corporations wishing to use drones for delivery purpose.

The regulations, which must undergo public comment and revision, are not expected to be finalized for at least a year. 

“This is a cutting-edge, new technology,” said Kurtulus Izzetoglu, a research associate professor in Drexel's School of Biomedical Engineering. “This is a multibillion-dollar market. To get into this market, they need regulations and policies in place so that they can get their unmanned systems into the air.”

Drexel researchers currently are testing and training tools that monitor brain activity as a way of determining operators mastery of skills. They previously used brain monitoring technology to examine the effects of task overload and cognitive workload on air traffic controllers.

As part of the national center, Drexel researchers will spend five years collaborating with industry partners and other research institutions. It provides the university an opportunity to help mold a quickly developing industry.

 “We all are very proud,” Izzetoglu said. “I cannot wipe the smile off my face. Being part of this consortium is really nice. This research will not only help the FAA, but the industry.”