UW-Madison now allowing drones on campus for research and instruction

A new policy at UW-Madison will now allow drones to be flown on campus for the purposes of research and teaching.

The rule allows unmanned aircraft systems — otherwise known as drones — to be used in indoor and outdoor setting. But it doesn’t allow their use on campus for recreational activities. Registered student organizations, individual students, faculty, staff, contractors and other university affiliates can apply for approval.

Grant Petty, UW-Madison professor of atmospheric science, says drone technology is quickly advancing, opening up the possibilities for use of these unmanned aerial vehicles.

“This rapid development has posed a major challenge to both the FAA, which is racing to come out with appropriate regulations governing the use of UAVs, and to prospective faculty, staff and student users of UAVs, who must understand and operate within those rules as they are created,” says Petty.

He says the university is now in “a far better position” to explore drone use in innovative ways.

Petty’s work is focused on using drones to measure variables in the lower atmosphere at low cost, but he’s not the only one racing to take advantage of the new policy.

Phil Townsend, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology, uses spectrometers attached to drones to look at various ecosystems, both agricultural and natural, from a bird’s-eye-view.

He can use them to collect high-resolution images and measurements at any given time, capturing high-quality data at low elevations that can be difficult to obtain otherwise.

“Drones offer opportunities that we just don’t have with airplanes or satellites,” Townsend said.

He added that the policy, while freeing up research, is also providing very important safety protections.

“It cannot be emphasized enough that a runaway UAV can be very dangerous,” he said. “Being able to assure all of this in proposals and reports provides more confidence to our funders, constituents and stakeholders.”

For Clayton Kingdon, a researcher in the Townsend lab and FAA-licensed UAV pilot, using drones on campus will help save time and money. He currently tests a UAV that is over 5 feet in diameter and weighs over 40 pounds at UW’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station, 30 minutes away from the university.

“To test even the most minor modifications, my crew and I must load our UAV, batteries, tools, and safety equipment into a truck and drive to Arlington,” he says. “If we can fly on campus then not only would the logistics for test flights be simpler but — and probably more importantly — we would make much faster progress towards achieving our science objectives.”

A UAS Ethics and Safety Committee is also being created to continually examine the evolving regulatory climate for drones.

And UW-Madison’s College of Engineering is offering its first-ever course for drone operation this summer.

“Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems” is being taught by Chris Johnson, director of the UW Flight Lab and program specialist in UAVs. The UW College of Engineering Education Innovation Committee awarded him a $40,710 grant in March to create the new course.

The class, which currently has only eight students, began May 30.

–By Alex Moe