FAA regulations keep UND unmanned aircraft grounded - Valley News Live - KVLY/KXJB - Fargo/Grand Forks

FAA regulations keep UND unmanned aircraft grounded

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Federal Aviation Administration regulations are keeping unmanned aircraft grounded at the University of North Dakota.

UND has one of only a handful of four-year unmanned aircraft pilot programs in the country.

"This is the INSITU ScanEagle," says UND Unmanned Aircraft Systems Student Jakee Stoltz, sitting next to the aircraft. "Technically, I'm a commercial, multi-engine rated pilot," he says.

Stoltz is also a certified flight instructor while finishing school.  UND has the only program in the country where students become a commercial pilot before graduating in Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Since the program started in 2009, interest has soared to 150 students, but due to FAA regulations, the program can't actually fly unmanned aircraft.  

"Right now we're limited in that we can't conduct live flight operations like we could in the manned world, so everything that we do in simulation," says UND Unmanned Aircraft Systems Chief Pilot Mark Hastings.

According to him, student tuition means the FAA would consider those flights commercial, which is prohibited.

"Students pay per hour to fly an aircraft in training. It would be the same model in unmanned aircraft, except we can't charge to fly, so that makes it impossible to recoup the costs," he says.

So students learn about the rules and regulations of unmanned aircraft before coming to a simulation room and working with an instructor on mock missions. Instructors say the FAA is also concerned about safety and money. They say the simulation allows students to experience emergency situations without crashing a real aircraft.

"That simulator is used when they have operated this in the past and the operators that they have, they use the simulator to stay current," Stoltz says.

Nonetheless, with their use expanding to agriculture, law enforcement and beyond, he says he's excited to be a part of an industry just taking flight

Instructors say graduates can get a chance to fly the drones if they choose to participate in research projects with local agencies and farmers.

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