The University of Connecticut received a drone aircraft certificate of authorization by the Federal Aviation Administration, but school officials say they will be flying the aircraft for research purposes rather than surveillance. In fact, they want to build a helicopter that will fly itself.

Baki Cetegen, chair of the mechanical engineering department at UConn’s Storrs campus, says that the certification was required for a proposal from the United Technologies Research Center, which hopes to conduct research to develop a remote controlled helicopter. The project has not yet been funded and no flights have taken place.

“UConn has NO intention to fly a drone or UAV for surveillance or any other purpose,” Cetegen said in an email. “Testing will be done in a designated area on Horse Barn Hill if the project is funded.”

The project involves using a large hobbyist remote control helicopter known as the Maxi Joker 3. UConn’s investigator on the proposed project, Chengyu Cao, says the goal will be to research autonomous navigation and guidance systems.

Cao said similar research is under way at other universities, including Virginia Tech, where he says researchers are working on designs for autonomous fixed wing aircraft rather than helicopters. He added that flight tests at UConn will be conducted by his lab.

“We try to use these flight tests as a platform to materialize and demonstrate our research results,” Cao said.

The FAA certification came to light following an Electronic Frontier Foundation inquiry into the use of drone aircraft over the United States. The EFF sued the FAA to disclose a list of authorized drone operators after the agency denied the EFF’s initial request for the list under the Freedom of Information Act.

UConn is one of about 58 public entities to be granted a certification nationwide. 

“A COA is required if you want to fly test any vehicle in the autonomous mode legally,” Cao added.

Helicopter image by Flickr user Quintet used under a creative commons license.

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