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    June 2016

    Safe Use of Drones on Campus

    Safe Use of Drones on Campus

    The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones. Afterward, the FAA fined a drone pilot hired by the University of Virginia to film an advertisement for “recklessly operating a drone for commercial use.” During the appeal for this case, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed for the first time that all drones, regardless of size, are aircraft under federal law.

    What Is a Drone?

    Drones are unmanned aircraft flown by a pilot on the ground, usually using hand-held navigation equipment that displays a live video feed from the aircraft, which is often recorded. They range in size and capabilities, but most can provide aerial views and transport small cargo.

    Educational institutions use drones for research and videography. For example, some colleges record aerial views of their campuses for promotional purposes or tape athletic and marching band practices for review by coaches and band leaders. Drones are also used to conduct rooftop inspections and map building sites. With personal drones becoming more common and affordable, students and visitors are bringing them to campus, thus complicating efforts to regulate use.

    The FAA’s Authority

    The FAA is responsible for regulating and overseeing the use of all aircraft and recognizes that drones can be used for recreational and hobby purposes or commercial use. The agency allows recreational drone use within statutory parameters, but any nonrecreational use is considered commercial. As of December 2015, all commercial and noncommercial drones weighing .55 - 55 pounds must be registered via an FAA online system.

    On June 21, 2016, the FAA released Part 107, a new rule that replaces the previous online exemption and registration system for nonrecreational users, such as institutions. Beginning in August 2016, this rule requires operators of drones for commercial use to hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or to operate the drone under the supervision of someone with such certification. Remote pilots can receive their certificate by passing an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center or by holding a Part 61 pilot certificate and completing a flight review and online training course. For more information on the new rule’s regulation of drones and pilots, see the FAA Summary of Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107).

    Educational Use Clarification

    In May 2016, the FAA provided a new interpretation for institutional use of drones. The clarification states that:

    • People operating drones at educational institutions will be considered hobbyists if they are not compensated directly or indirectly for operating the aircraft. Faculty members are generally considered compensated, except for the example below.
    • Students conducting model aircraft operations to further their education at accredited educational institutions, such as using a drone as part of the curricula for a principles of flight or television and film production course, will be classified as hobbyists.
    • Faculty teaching aviation-related courses at accredited institutions may assist students operating model aircraft for the course if the student maintains operational control of the aircraft; for example, a faculty member may take control to prevent a crash while a student maintains operational control.

    Faculty member drone operations outside of the exception above are considered commercial use and are subject to Part 107. 

    Creating a Policy

    Despite their many positive uses, drones can cause property damage, injure people, and invade privacy. When creating your institution’s policy:

    • Ensure your policy complies with federal law and any state laws on drone use. For example, the FAA restricts flights over stadiums with a seating capacity over 30,000 people during NCAA Division I football games from one hour before, until one hour after, the game. Also, the FAA requires that airport operators and air traffic control towers receive prior notice of drone flights within five miles of the airport. The airport may deny such flights.
    • Determine what type of drones will be permitted and the training necessary to operate them. Institutions such as Columbia University require prior approval for drones that are not institution owned and operated. Specify institutional sanctions for noncompliance or government sanctions for illegal drone use.
    • Identify restrictions on location, height, weight, and speed of drone use. Also, consider using signage to alert the campus community about these restrictions.
    • Check that appropriate insurance is in place to cover accidents; general liability policies typically exclude aircraft.
    • Publicize the drones policy via email, news releases, and signage. Educate new students and staff on the policy and the application process during orientation.

    Sample Policies

    University of Washington - Overview of drone law as applicable to UW drone use

    Indiana University

    Auburn University Gameday Drones Policy 


    FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Website

    FAA Smartphone App – B4UFLY

    FAA Press Release – DOT and FAA Finalize Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Part 107) – June 21, 2016

    FAA News – Summary of Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107) – June 21, 2016

    By Melanie Bennett, associate risk management counsel


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