For the past few years, the unmanned aircraft program at Kansas State University Salina has had permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly aircraft at Crisis City southwest of Salina, at Salina Regional Airport and just to the west of it, and at K-State’s research farms near Manhattan.
On Tuesday, the university announced the FAA had approved three new Certificates of Authorization that allow flights throughout Kansas, including over private property with permission of the owner.
The university could ask the FAA for authorization to cover some other area, but such applications typically take two to three months to process, said Mark Blanks, K-State Salina’s UAS program manager.
“When we’re looking at something in agriculture, like drought stress, or a bug infestation, we need to move pretty quickly,” Blanks said.
Blanks has been working on the application since August 2013.
“The FAA had never granted an authorization this large, and they had lots of questions about privacy, about coordinating with air-traffic control,” Banks said.
While the new COAs are unprecedented in scope, they still come with lots of restrictions, Blanks said.
All flights must stay below 700 feet, must be during the day, and the controller must maintain visual line of sight with the vehicle. Also, missions cannot fly over heavily trafficked roads or over an outside gathering of people.
In addition to those rules, K-State Salina requires the pilot in command of the aircraft to have completed an FAA private pilot ground instruction and to have passed the written exam within the past 24 months. The pilot also must hold a private pilot certificate if flying above 400 feet and must have a second-class FAA medical certificate.
Blanks said the FAA’s action will allow expansion of research, and stressed that the university isn’t going into competition with private companies.
Flights have research focus
“In Manhattan, we’re looking at a pest that’s prevalent in wheat, and we’re trying to find out how we can detect that pest using unmanned systems,” Blanks said. “We can’t just provide a service — all of our flights have to have a research focus.”
“It gives us an opportunity to meet our research requirements,” said Kurt Carraway, K-State Salina’s UAS flight operations manager. “Any time the FAA opens an opportunity like this, it’s an opportunity for proof-of-concept, to show there are ways to safely integrate UAS into the general airspace. We’re helping show it can be done.”
“We’ve established a good reputation with the FAA in terms of how our operations are handled,” Carraway said. “Our reputation for safe operations had merit in the application approval.”
Less than two weeks ago, the FAA published proposed new rules for small unmanned aircraft to operate in general airspace.
“The FAA rule would allow much broader commercial applications,” Carraway said. “”It’s going to be a game-changer, an enabler, but it’s going to be a lengthy process.”