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Flying Robots Are Coming to US Universities


Students at John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota, remotely pilot a drone during a demonstration, in a June 24, 2014, photo.

Students at John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota, remotely pilot a drone during a demonstration, in a June 24, 2014, photo.


Flying devices, called drones, may be one of the most important technologies of the future.

The number of jobs for people who know how to design, build and control them is increasing.

Because of this increase, several U.S. universities and colleges started offering degrees in unmanned aerial systems, or UAS.

One of these universities is the University of Washington in Seattle. Christopher Lum is an aeronautics research scientist with the university's Autonomous Flight Systems Laboratory. Lum helps students explore how civilian drones can safely share the skies with regular aircraft.

Ryan Valach loves the three years he spent in the flight lab.

"One of the coolest parts is [working] with industries and all the cool technology we work with. It is a definitely an opportunity that a lot of students don't usually get," he said.

Ward Handley is seeking a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics at University of Washington. When the drone program first began, he did not think it was a good idea.

"I … decided, no I do not want to work on drones because of the privacy issues," he said. Drones can be used to invade people's privacy.

But when an offer for a paid position in the drone lab appeared, Handley changed his opinion.

He said, "I'd like to see them used for good rather than [bad]. I think there are good enough [purposes] for them that are really useful.”

However, the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, is creating new rules to control the use of drones. The FAA is the part of the U.S. government that controls air travel and traffic.

A new FAA law requires drone owners to register their drones. All drones must be registered in a government database by February 19, 2016. People who do not register their drones could face fines of up to $20,000.

Changing current rules may also present problems for students looking for drone-pilot experience. One problem for many school's unmanned aerial systems programs is finding a legal place to fly.

Students at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon fly inside the college gymnasium.

In Seattle, University of Washington student Alec Bueing showed off the place where his department tests the drones. "It's just a [big] room that we move the tables and chairs out of. ... If it happens to get out of control toward the windows we [reduce] any damage," he explained.

Lum explained why they test drones inside a building. He said it takes a very long time to get official permission to fly outside.

"The federal [laws] are a little bit [restricting]. ... We need to register our aircraft. We need to [get] what is called a Certificate of Authorization," Lum said.

That process can take months.

The FAA wants to replace the way it examines requests to register drones. Now, the FAA looks at each case differently. The organization wants to create a national rule for civil UAS, and UAS used for business, later in 2016.

"At this time, Kansas State University is the only school with … [permission] to offer unmanned aircraft flight [classes] to students [outside]," an FAA representative wrote.

The FAA selected Kansas State and 15 other universities to be part of a national academic research group, called the Center of Excellence for UAS. The group will receive federal money to expand research and training.

Also in the group is the University of North Dakota. The university is the first to offer a UAS degree.

Lum and some of his students recently moved their research to Australia. Australia has fewer rules governing UAS. A professor at Western Washington University also took his department's drones to Canada for the same reason.

I'm Pete Musto.

Tom Banse reported and wrote this story for VOA news. Pete Musto adapted it for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

Now it's your turn. Do you think government should let private citizens use UAS? Are UAS common in your country? Let us know in the comments section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

unmanned aerial systemsn. flying vehicles or machines controlled either by onboard computers or by the pilot on the ground or in another vehicle

aeronauticsn. a science that deals with airplanes and flying

aircraftn. a machine such as an airplane or a helicopter that flies through the air

master's degreen. a degree a college or university gives to a student usually after one or two years of additional study following a bachelor's degree

astronauticsn. the science and technology of human space travel and exploration

privacyn. the state of being away from public attention

databasen. a collection of pieces of information that is organized and used on a computer

gymnasiumn. a room or building that has equipment for sports activities or exercise

show(ed) offp.v. to cause a lot of people to see or notice someone or something of which you think highly

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

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