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MTSU Puts Drones in Tennessee Skies

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (Anfinson) – WMOT's Shawn Anfinson sat down recently with Mark Blanks, Middle Tennessee State’s Interim Director of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, to talk about the future of drones.

MTSU hopes to begin offering academic courses in drone studies soon. The classes would prepare students for management careers in the rapidly growing field and Blanks sees lots of opportunities.

“It would be designed for them to go run a U.S. program for law enforcement, for the forest service, for a surveying company... Unmanned aircraft are a lot more than just law enforcement... It’s agriculture based. John Deere is really interested. A lot of ag companies, chemical companies that are really interested in their herbicides and pesticides and how to spray those effectively.”

Blanks went on to say that MTSU is in the process of building an aircraft specifically designed for surveying crops.

At the moment, the aerospace program has permission to conduct drone test flights over a small area near Savannah, Tennessee. The program also has applied to fly over MTSU’s dairy farm on Guy James Road, in Murfreesboro.

Blanks says the FAA regulates drone flights as closely as it does manned aircraft. It even requires a 24 hour advance notification to fly.

Still, some people are concerned by privacy and safety issues, fearing overreach by law enforcement. The ACLU has cited the need for rules protecting us from becoming a surveillance society. They also question whether manufacturers will arm domestic drones with non-lethal weapons, like rubber bullets, tasers and tear gas.

Blanks is sympathetic to people's concerns. He understands that having a drone buzzing around your home is a scary thought. But he feels many worries are the product of misinformation.

“Right now the same thing is being done with helicopters, manned assets, and the laws that govern those are the same laws that will govern unmanned aircraft. They still prevent surveying somebody without probable cause, without warrants, without justification, all that stuff. So you’re not going to see an airplane hovering over somebody’s backyard trying to catch them doing something illegal when there’s no suspicion.”

Blanks said MTSU is currently working with other universities to address the privacy issue.