Universities want to fly drones for research

Robby Soave | Reporter

More than 30  public universities applied to the federal government for permits to operate drones last year.

Applicants include the Universities of Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, according to records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

EFF manages an interactive map that shows several universities were granted permits to operate drones in previous years. Connecticut’s drone permit allowed the university to create “an educational research platform for unmanned aerial vehicles.”

Most universities are interesting in using the drones for research-related purposes, said an EFF spokesperson.

“In general, when universities have applied for these … it’s been research related,” said Rebecca Jeschke, media relations director of EFF, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It could mean everything from they have a program where they want to teach people how to build or fly drones, or wanting to fly the drones in order to gather research. To fly over an agricultural area, to fly off the coast to a place where it would be hard to get people to, to make some sort of wildlife assessment.”

But not all permit requests are research-related. Georgia Tech University applied for a permit to operate three surveillance drones in 2010. The request, which was denied by the Federal Aviation Authority, made clear that the drones’ purpose on campus would be to “follow individuals on foot,” according to Campus Reform.

Such use of a drone would be concerning, said Jeschke.

“We have lots of concerns about law enforcement using drones, and we would have the same concerns about law enforcement, whether it was the university or not,” she said.

Universities should make guarantees to their students that no one is watching their every move, she said.

“We think universities and other research organizations should still have a privacy policy,” she said.

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