Paul Voss, an educator who may have influenced the FAA’s drone rule

Smith College aero-vehicle designer

It was July 2014. The FAA had just released an interpretation of its model aircraft rule to clarify what researchers could and could not do with drones, which were exploding in popularity. Among those who took notice was Paul Voss, who had developed tiny meteorological balloons for gathering data in hard-to-reach places to validate weather and climate models. Voss penned a letter voicing concern and pointing out the rich history of model aircraft flights for research. Twenty-eight fellow academics signed on, and news of the letter went viral. Today, Voss says the FAA has made “enormous progress” in managing drones, including enacting a new rule that went into effect in August. He says it’s possible the letter contributed.

How did you become interested in flight?

There is an elegance to machines and creatures that float through the air and appear to defy gravity. As a child, I built numerous flying contraptions in my basement workshop. I distinctly remember flying a small battery-powered trainer I built in the early ’80s — it made one lumbering circle around the field, sort of controlled, which seemed amazing at the time.

I majored in engineering at Brown University and subsequently became interested in how our weather and climate are governed by the same physical laws as engineered systems. I had the great privilege of doing my Ph.D. research in professor Jim Anderson’s lab at Harvard, developing photochemical instruments for NASA’s high-altitude ER-2 aircraft.

I currently teach fluid mechanics, atmospheric processes and aerial-vehicle design at Smith College. I have developed altitude-controlled weather balloons that are utilized in international collaborations to study the lower atmosphere. It is a strange feeling to sit at a laptop in Massachusetts while commanding a 300-gram balloon to land on the ice in Antarctica or navigate the river breezes in the Amazon. Our students have been deeply involved in this research, too.

What do you see as the long-term impact of the FAA’s drone rule?

I am excited to begin using small unmanned aircraft systems in my teaching and research. These aircraft are microcosms of engineering, with everything from aerodynamics and material science to electronics and control theory in one small package. The FAA’s enactment of Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations in August is a major step forward. The agency has done a great job of addressing safety while still facilitating innovation, for example, by allowing researchers, inventors and startups to develop airframes and avionics. The mandatory knowledge test has many good questions related to airspace, communications, safety and understanding the rules.

With the right policies in the future, I believe that UAS could soon move beyond line of sight to do some amazing things. For example, monitoring flights over farms and pipelines, with landowner consent, could be some of the first opportunities. Even far-fetched ideas like package delivery could make sense if these aircraft were to travel in established corridors connecting designated landing areas, such as industrial zones. In the same way that digital technology has enabled more intensive use of the radio spectrum, GPS could confine transiting to narrow airways at altitudes high enough that they don’t create a nuisance, harm wildlife or significantly restrict other users of uncontrolled (Class G) airspace. This would be a future we could look forward to. ★

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Paul Voss, an educator who may have influenced the FAA’s drone rule