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UC Merced Becomes Drone Use Policy Hub

April 25, 2016

Brandon StarkThe drone research lab at UC Merced has catapulted the campus to the leading edge of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) field, and now the campus has been chosen as the new hub for UC systemwide policies, procedures and training protocols.

School of Engineering doctoral candidate Brandon Stark will serve as director of the newly formed Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety, which is being funded by the UC Office of the President. His full appointment begins in May.

“We’re very fortunate to have Brandon. He’s uniquely qualified, having designed, built and operated UAS,” said Ken Smith, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety for the UC system, which oversees this and other centers of excellence dealing with safety. “This is an emerging regulatory area, and we have many UC community members who are interested in drones. Brandon’s expertise will be crucial as we develop policies for the UC system.”

This is UC Merced’s first UC Center of Excellence under the Campus and Public Safety umbrella.

“There are a lot of campuses that know a lot about safety and policy in many different areas, but we don’t all know the same information,” Stark said. “We’ll be the clearinghouse for drone policy, privacy issues, liability and risk management, information about state and federal laws, and training and other resources.”

“This was definitely exciting news for Campus and Public Safety to house the newest center of excellence in the UC system,” said Albert Vasquez, assistant vice chancellor for Campus and Public Safety and chief of police. “Brandon’s interest in this emerging area is incredible. He is excited about this opportunity and I am looking forward to working with him as the program develops.”

Safety Programs for the UC

The Centers of Excellence program, through the UC’s Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) division, began in 2010 with the formation of the Center for Laboratory Safety at UCLA and includes Dangerous Goods Shipping at UC Berkeley; Hospital Safety Management and Injury Reduction at UC Davis; and Safety in the Arts at UC Santa Cruz.

The program is designed to recognize unique pockets of expertise within campuses or medical centers, and provide a forum to share information and best practices throughout the system through the coordination of training and support.

“UAS use is becoming more and more prevalent as their capabilities grow. However, policies and guidelines for their use are diffuse at this time,” School of Engineering Dean Mark Matsumoto said. “The expertise centered here at UC Merced in this center of excellence will provide important best-practice information to help ensure that drones are used effectively, safely and appropriately throughout the entire UC system.”

The Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety will be funded by the UC for two years on a renewable contract. As long as UAS are relevant, Stark said, it’s likely the funding will continue, though he hopes to make the center self-sustaining within the first couple of years.

He plans to offer training courses, seminars and workshops not only for people within the UC system — including faculty members, student clubs, administrators and staff members — but for people who use drones in their businesses, such as farmers, and even hobbyists.

He said he’ll develop publications and a website where people can find information; put together committees and task forces to help determine policies in accordance with ever-changing federal and state laws; and likely serve as the applicant for all UC Federal Aviation Administration drone certifications of authorization, which are required for drone flights.

A Background in Drones

Stark, a San Joaquin Valley native and Tracy High School graduate, is the founding manager of UC Merced’s Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation (MESA) Lab, which opened in 2012 and is led by Professor YangQuan Chen.

He has worked with UAS since 2006, as an undergraduate at UC Irvine. He began his doctoral work at Utah State University with Chen before the two joined UC Merced.

The MESA Lab is an interdisciplinary research group that works on cutting-edge research, providing mentoring and hands-on research experience for engineering undergraduate students. More than 150 students have worked with the MESA Lab since its founding, and its students have been active publishing research and winning awards. Since it opened, the lab rapidly grew into one of the most sought-after opportunities on campus, and has 76 undergraduate students and five Ph.D. students.

“This UC drone center hosted at UC Merced will help to turn scientific data-drone education, research and service into a signature program at UC Merced,” Chen said. “California’s Central Valley will become the ‘Scientific Data-Drone Valley’ for precision agriculture, environmental monitoring, natural resource management and digital heritage.”

Stark will leave the lab at the Castle Research Facility and make his new office on campus in the EH&S offices, reporting to Vasquez.

Other California colleges are developing UAS policy as well, but are doing it individually. Stark said he sees the potential for the UC to work with California’s state and community colleges.

“The UC has the advantage in that this is supported from the very top of the system,” he said. “But if we could all get together, we’d become one very large, influential voice for advocacy.”