A Federal Aviation Administration ruling recently halted a historic event and violated a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in doing so. The University’s aerospace engineering department, the first such department in the United States, celebrated its centennial anniversary this past week. More than 200 alumni and distinguished members of the aerospace community attended the three-day event consisting of tours, presentations, panel discussions and celebratory dinners. As is tradition at Michigan, the celebration ended with a football game at the Big House. To commemorate the centennial, a number of vintage airplanes were approved to fly over the stadium, and a small quadrotor would carry the game ball down the field as part of a pregame ceremony organized by a model aircraft hobbyist and a local startup company. This quadrotor flight was initially approved by the University.

I am director of the University’s Autonomous Aerospace Systems Lab, where I conduct research in autonomy, aviation safety and novel unmanned aircraft. I also advise the Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles student team. This past week, visitors toured my lab, and we engaged in lively discussions mostly centered on the future rather than the past of aerospace. The game would include elements of past and future — really cool airplanes from our history and a “drone” that just happened to also be able to safely carry a football down the field. Unfortunately, what I had hoped would be an awesomely fun event turned into a nightmare for me courtesy of the FAA.

University of Michigan cancels quadrotor flight due to FAA lawsuit threats:
Centennial organizers worked closely with the FAA to gain approval for a variety of historic aircraft to fly over the stadium before and during the game. These airplanes would fly low enough to be clearly visible to the crowd but certainly not so low that they might risk impacting the stadium structure. A TFR, or temporary flight restriction, was issued as is conventional for major stadium events; the TFR prevents other aircraft from flying over or near the stadium. An avid hobbyist, Peter Baumeler from Traverse City, Michigan, asked the University to be part of the event by operating the quadrotor carrying the game ball down the field. He engaged local Ann Arbor startup SkySpecs, whose employees are primarily University alumni and former MAAV team members who had dreamed as undergraduates of somehow connecting their quadrotor to the famed football venue. Peter, SkySpecs and the University worked arduously to ensure the flight would be safe in the presence of so many spectators. The team rehearsed, analyzed the impact of spectator cell phones on communication links and carefully addressed each problem.

In the ideal case, the football would successfully be flown across the field. In the worst case, the flight would be terminated over an empty field, falling ingloriously but safely to the ground. There would have been no danger to aircraft flying above the stadium or to the crowd. The quadrotor in question would have emerged from the tunnel and flown a maximum of 23 feet above the stadium floor. This maximum height was below the bleachers, lower than most of the stadium structure and well below overhead Skycams on wires. In fact, because the Big House is built into a depression in the ground, the quadrotor would have actually remained below ground level throughout its flight. SkySpecs engineers volunteered their time and equipment, hobbyist Peter Baumeler trekked from Traverse City to Ann Arbor several times to plan and practice, and the aerospace department thought this would be a great way to celebrate our centennial at the game.

The day before the game, the FAA threatened to bring a lawsuit against the University if the flight was conducted. Despite an offer to deliver the ball with the quadrotor continuously tethered by strong ropes to handlers on the ground, the FAA stood its ground in banning the flight. There was no indication of which (if any) of the code from 14 CFR — in the code of Federal Regulations — would have been violated, and there was no response to the University’s offer to fly with a tether.

The question of “Who owns the sky?”
The FAA’s decision to threaten suit against the University for a small football-carrying quadrotor flown 23 feet above the Big House turf makes it clear the FAA has firmly staked a claim to the air inside the Big House. The University might secure approval from the FAA for a future Big House quadrotor flight through a Certification of Authorization, exemption or waiver. However, none of these mechanisms will improve safety of flight as the University is expected to “self-certify” its aircraft in the end. Furthermore, these steps don’t resolve the larger question of who owns the air or sky inside the Big House.

The Ann Arbor Municipal Airport is within a few miles of the Big House. Except for times when TFRs are issued due to stadium events, general aviation aircraft are able to fly over the stadium. When Finlay Beaton, Michigan Flyers chief flight instructor and long-time certified flight instructor — instrument (CFII) — was told about the FAA’s ban of the quadrotor flight, he offered the following: “I am completely confused as to how a quadcopter delivering a football would impact safety at the U of M game. Bottom line is there is no impact to safety.” Regarding unmanned aircraft flight more generally, he indicated, “If they (UA) keep away from airports and below safe altitudes for (manned) airplanes, then I’ve got no problem with that.”

In United States v. Causby (1946), the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “We have said that the airspace is a public highway. Yet it is obvious that, if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere … The landowner owns at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land.”

The University of Michigan owns the Big House and the land surrounding it. Clearly the air inside the stadium is used by the University to allow the crowd and media cameras to view and enjoy the game. We must support the FAA, NASA and other government agencies engaged in developing unmanned aircraft policy to appropriately manage the risks introduced by UA flight through navigable airspace. We also must be vigilant to ensure this policy respects the rights of landowners to exclusively control their “immediate reaches” airspace.

Prof. Ella M. Atkins is an associate professor in the aerospace engineering department.

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