Penn State Allows UAV Flights under New Program for Research, Teaching and Public Service

With those final commands from aerospace engineering doctoral candidate John Bird, the AutoSOAR unmanned air vehicle was launched into the sky above the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs, releasing with it nearly a year of bottled-up anticipation among faculty, staff and graduate students across the Penn State community.

Will Holmes, a graduate student in Penn State's aerospace engineering program, handled the launching of the unmanned air vehicle at the start of the test flight at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center. (Credit: Patrick Mansell)

Unmanned air vehicles are flying again at Penn State for research, teaching and public service under the auspices of the Office for Research Protections. A new UAV program will ensure compliance with Federal Aviation Administration rules and puts in place an insurance, registration and procedural infrastructure to govern the outdoor operation of unmanned air systems at the University.

“With the emergence in popularity of unmanned air vehicles and essentially the ubiquity of these aircraft, it was becoming a combination of a privacy hazard and a safety hazard,” said Mike Yukish, the University’s newly appointed unmanned air systems operations manager, who is also head of the Manufacturing Product and Process Design Department in the Applied Research Lab and assistant professor of aerospace engineering. “All of a sudden the FAA said, ‘Structure. We need structure.’ And so Penn State was put in a position of immediately needing to put a process in place for UAVs that is centralized and controlled.”

A key component of the University’s UAS program is an operations manual that governs every aspect of flying a UAV at Penn State. To view the manual and supporting documents in their entirety, and to learn more about the program and what every Penn State employee must do in order to adhere to FAA and Penn State requirements, visit

“My goal for the program is to do two things: First, it has to meet FAA and insurance company requirements for structure, and second, to create a guide for anyone University-wide who wants to fly UAVs for Penn State,” Yukish said. “If they say, ‘I don’t even know where to start,’ this operations manual will tell them how to fly and the rules to follow.”

It is important to note that while the program covers employees, student interns and undergraduate and graduate assistants flying UAVs in an official capacity for the University, it does not apply to recreational or strictly educational flights by students. These types of flights are governed by the University’s safety policies and FAA hobbyist rules, which are available at

In addition, on June 21, the FAA unveiled regulations making it easier for companies and entities like Penn State to fly UAVs. Among other changes, the new regulations, which go into effect Aug. 29 and are collectively known as Part 107, have removed the requirement that a UAV operator possess a manned pilot license. In its place will be a UAV-specific qualification test and certificate that will provide a cheaper and simpler path to flying.

While Penn State is flying now in accordance with the FAA’s existing rules, under what is known as a Section 333 exemption granted to the University in February, the University will begin operating under the simplified Part 107 rules as of Aug. 29, and the operations manual will be updated accordingly. Individuals wishing to fly now should contact Yukish at [email protected] to ensure FAA and University compliance.

Faculty members are already lining up to fly, both for research and to utilize the technology UAVs offer to provide engaged learning opportunities for students.

“That tree copse out there outlines a sinkhole, and it’s about 35 feet deep,” said Doug Miller, professor of geography at Penn State, who was on hand for the test flight at the Larson Agricultural Research Center on July 12, which served to put the new program through its paces. “I bring my undergraduate landforms class out here to teach them about sinkholes and other landforms. One of the things I have them do is actually calculate the volume of that sinkhole by walking around and taking measurements. This fall we’re going to bring a quadcopter out here with a lidar unit on it and do a digital elevation model of the sinkhole and digitally calculate it to see how close students get with their own manual calculations.”

“With the expertise that we already have, plus our location in central Pennsylvania, which is a great place to fly, Penn State has the opportunity to become a real leader in the evolution of this technology going forward.” -- Mike Yukish, UAS operations manager

Miller said that the ability to fly UAVs is so critical because their use touches on all three prongs of Penn State’s mission: teaching, research and service.

“From a teaching perspective, this is the latest technology,” Miller said. “In the next 10 years, our students are going to be using this technology in agriculture, environmental sciences and a host of other fields. In extension, it’s obvious: helping agriculturalists with plant and pest monitoring, and also forest and landscape mapping. From a research perspective, the miniaturization of the equipment and the kinds of things we can put on these devices and fly them, these are things we had to wait for satellite data in previous years. We can map much smaller areas in much greater detail.”

With UAVs becoming increasingly relevant not just at Penn State but also globally, Yukish said he sees an opportunity for Penn State to become a leader in the advancement of the technology through UAV-related research and educational integration.

“There is a heavy demand to fly UAVs in research, particularly as sensing platforms for monitoring agricultural fields, forest lands, air quality and performing mineral analysis, just to name a few,” he said. “From an engineering perspective, there is a great deal of research being done in how to build, operate and control UAVs. This has all been on hold, so we anticipate resuming the previous level of flying plus see strong growth.

“With the expertise that we already have, plus our location in central Pennsylvania, which is a great place to fly, Penn State has the opportunity to become a real leader in the evolution of this technology going forward.”


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