FAA investment grants $2.7 million for drones in disaster response

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A big FAA investment is set to give more than $3 million to researchers looking to improve ways that drones can assist in disaster preparedness and in emergencies. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced last month that the Federal Aviation Administration had awarded a combined $2.7 million to researchers, spread across five U.S. universities. Those universities (and amount of funding received) are:

  • University of Vermont: $1,195,000
  • University of Alabama Huntsville: $828,070
  • New Mexico State University: $400,000
  • North Carolina State University: $200,000
  • Kansas State University: $145,000

This specific funding is allocated for research that uses drones in both natural and human-made disasters, and how drones can support federal agencies, state and local disaster preparedness groups, and emergency response organizations.

An August 2022 drone workshop at the University of Vermont. Photo courtesy of University of Vermont

A massive chunk — over $1 million worth — of the funding is allocated to the University Of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis Lab, which has long been a leader in using drones for disaster response. The university has been using drones since 2011, and its drone program was actually born out of necessity when Tropical Storm Irene exposed gaps in Vermont’s ability to rapidly acquire detailed and accurate imagery to inform disaster response and recovery. These days, the University of Vermont, which is based in Burlington, works with FEMA, state, and local agencies for everything from infrastructure inspection to invasive species mapping. It also claims to be the first group in the nation to use drones to respond to a rail accident.

 Aerial view of a 2015 train derailment in Vermont captured by a drone. Photo courtesy of University of Vermont

What to know about FAA investment through the ASSURE program

This latest drone investment comprises the third round of 2022 ASSURE grants, which provides schools with funding through the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence. So far in 2022, ASSURE has granted more than $21 million across 20 grants. That included $4.4 million doled out in April through the second funding round that focused on three areas: electromagnetic compatibility, detect and avoid classifications, and cybersecurity oversight.

ASSURE was founded by the FAA as one of six “Centers for Excellence,” each of which was designed to help advance technology and support education across a range of aviation areas ASSURE is specific to drones, with an effort on supporting overall growth while also helping integrate drones into the nation’s airspace, which means a range of things including standardizing Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, sense and avoid technology, or ground communications.

In theory, all that money given to the universities for research means a better understanding of drones and airspace. That research can then be given back to the FAA, a process where private and public universities do work with government funding, freeing up the government to not actually do the research itself. Especially when it comes to drones, the FAA has leaned on either private companies, non-profits, education institutions or other organizations to help it advance forward through not just ASSURE grants, but also projects like the BEYOND program.