UC Davis requests permission to fly aerial drones

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a list of of agencies that requested permission to fly drones in early February. The list includes state departments, local law enforcement, as well as colleges and universities, and comes as a response to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which mandates the FAA to make the list of applicants known to the public.

A drone is an unmanned aircraft that can fly autonomously, without the control of a human. The mostly commonly used type of drones includes those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes, and those that have missiles and bombs attached to them.

UC Davis uses drones for agricultural spraying and fertilizing, according to Ken Giles, a professor in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering department.

“The advantages of the vehicle are that spraying and fertilizing can be done much more safely than using a conventional tractor in places like hillside vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties. The remotely controlled aircraft can be flown by a pilot standing on the edge of the field instead of driving a tractor on steep land and making turns at the ends of rows,” Giles said. “It can also go into those areas when the soil is too wet or muddy to allow tractors to enter. It can also be safer than using an aircraft with a pilot aboard.”

According to Giles, the project has no affiliations with military or police use. The drones are flown at low altitudes over remote agricultural land in order to spray or fertilize the crops. They do not operate over buildings, roads or people.

All flights are approved by the FAA days in advance and are not operated on the UC Davis campus or any nearby land.

The list comes amid controversy over a newly-released memo documenting the CIA’s strategy on the targeted killing of American citizens. Additionally, Charlottesville, Va. has recently become a “drone-free zone,” becoming the first city to pass anti-drone legislation.

Drone use in the U.S. implicates serious privacy and civil liberties concerns. According to Gizmodo.com, although drones can be used for positive purposes, they are also capable of highly advanced, constant surveillance, which can amass large amounts of data.

“Drones, like any technology, can be used for good, but if not regulated, can be used for nefarious purposes. There are many positive uses of drones: for agricultural purposes, to track wildlife, fight forest fires, search and rescue. What is necessary is for their use to be carefully regulated, with transparency that allows the public to know how and by whom they are being used,” said Daniel Brunstetter, UC Irvine professor of political science, who conducts research on drone warfare.

The new list also adds to the debate over whether using domestic drones for surveillance is appropriate for American values.

“At first I was slightly shocked to find out that there were drones located in Davis, not to mention on our university campus,” said Chris Nino, a third-year international relations major. “However, it is logical that they would be located in Northern California since Travis Air Force Base is located in the near vicinity. Since they are currently being used for agricultural purposes, it doesn’t really worry me, but I could see how many people would see the presence of drones as a threat to their privacy.”

NATASHA QABAZARD can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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