FAA exemption gives Sinclair UAS program new wings

Continuing coverage

Sinclair Community College is spending millions of dollars to train students and renovate a classroom and lab building in the emerging unmanned aerial systems industry. This newspaper will continue to cover drone-related developments at Sinclair and in the Miami Valley.

With a new go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration and a planned building, Sinclair Community College is positioning itself near the center of local Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) research, the college and its partners said Monday.

College officials celebrated Sinclair’s newly granted FAA “Section 333” exemption which lets the college fly UAS vehicles — sometimes called UAVs or “drones” — more freely within defined parameters.

Sinclair can fly with commercial partners — such as Beavercreek engineering firm Woolpert — for tasks such as infrastructure inspection, mapping, precision agriculture and much more, said Deb Norris, Sinclair’s vice president of workforce development.

“Sinclair continues to be a national leader with what they’re doing, especially in the UAV industry,” said Jeff Hoagland, chief executive of the Dayton Development Coalition.

The new exemption lets Sinclair fly UAS in commercial projects, lower than 200 feet, to perform services, test sensors, collect data and more, said Andrew Shepherd, Sinclair’s director of Unmanned Aerial Systems.

It might be thought of as a “blanket COA” (certificate of authority) or instance of federal permission to fly the vehicles, Shepherd and others said at a Sinclair press conference. In recent years, Sinclair has secured about seven individual COAs, with an additional 11 COAs pending, Norris said.

The exemption gives the college more freedom within certain limits.

“You have to apply for COAs under the 333 to allow commercial operations outside the blanket approval,” Shepherd said. “So if you want to fly at 300 feet, then you would need a (new) COA referencing our 333.”

Sinclair’s prior COAs did not grant the college a “blanket commercial approval” for commercial work, he added.

“This is such an important development, because it frees up our research and development efforts,” said Steven Johnson, Sinclair president. “It frees up our efforts to trains our students and also to just to overall develop this industry within our mission.”

Sinclair is the first Ohio college to secure a Section 333 exemption and the second institution of higher education in the nation to win one, Johnson said.

On April 8, the FAA granted the Auburn University Aviation Center a Section 333 exemption "to operate an UAS to conduct training courses to instruct students in the operation of unmanned aircraft and their associated systems."

The FAA has granted a total of 397 Section 333 exemptions since its first awarded them on Sept. 25 to four companies for closed-set filming purposes.

The FAA says Section 333 exemptions are granted on a case-by-case basis before an overall federal “small UAS rule” governing UAS flights is drafted.

Also Monday, Sinclair officials noted that a new building for UAS flight and instruction is being built on Fifth Street next to the campus’ existing Building 13. Sinclair already has an indoor flight range, about 25,000 square feet under a ceiling of 25 feet.

The new building will have a 40-foot ceiling with GPS access indoors, allowing vertical take-offs and landings, training and testing, without concerns about weather or interfering with other air traffic, Shepherd said.

According to an FAA letter to Sinclair dated May 12, Sinclair's exemption allows it to fly for "aerial data collection."

Earlier this month, Woolpert, Sinclair, the Ohio-Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex and UAS manufacturer Altavian Inc. announced a partnership for commercial UAS operations in Ohio, supporting resource management, infrastructure monitoring, agriculture, mapping and other tasks.

The exemption and all of Sinclair’s COAs are useful in Woolpert’s work, said Jeff Lovin, Woolpert’s senior vice president and director of geospatial services.

“I’m extremely grateful for the partnership,” he said.

Sinclair isn’t the only area college with an eye on UAS development. In January, Clark State Community College announced its own COA to fly a UAS over parts of Springfield to collect photos and other data.

Johnson said the UAS industry is estimated could have have an economic impact by 2025 of up to $94 billion annually.

Sinclair first offered certificate training program in UAS in the fall of 2011. Today, the school offers four certificate programs and a two-year associate’s degree in the field.

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