Drone U: Drone Use on Campus and Developing an Effective Drone Policy
Drones on campus is a key issue facing universities and educational institutions today. As small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) increasingly make their appearance on campuses across the U.S., colleges and universities are struggling to develop reasonable drone use policies, which are responsive both to the growing market and benefits afforded by this technology, as well as to the wide array of safety and privacy concerns that it raises.
Drones on campus is a key issue facing universities and educational institutions today. In 2015, the global drone market was valued at USD $10.1 billion and is expected to show a robust growth in the future, particularly in the civil and commercial sectors .1 Affordable, easy-to-fly “drones,” or sUAS, have become widely available for consumer purchase, and a growing array of industries are using sUAS, or seek to use sUAS, for military, commercial or humanitarian endeavors.
As sUAS increasingly make their appearance on campuses across the U.S., colleges and universities are struggling to develop reasonable drone use policies, which are responsive both to the growing market and benefits afforded by this technology, as well as to the wide array of safety and privacy concerns that it raises.
The common points of intersection between the growing drone market and a college or university are as follows:
- Education: Drone and related technologies are becoming standard tools used in a wide array of disciplines including, without limitation, media, film, journalism, agriculture, construction, engineering and emergency management. Institutions offering coursework in these disciplines have an obligation to provide students with up-to-date training and education.
- Research and Development and the Commercialization of New Technologies: Higher education institutions, their faculty and students have a unique and significant opportunity to participate in the growing drone market, through the research, development and commercialization of innovative drone and drone-related technologies.
- Marketing: Colleges and universities can leverage drone technologies for marketing purposes, and are beginning to use drones to capture compelling aerial videos of campus, athletic events, and the community for internal and external publication.
- Emergency Management and First Response: Drones are increasingly used as assistive tools by emergency response teams, and police and emergency response offices are evaluating the efficacy of drone use for security monitoring and emergency response on campus.
- Recreational Use: Students are increasingly operating drones on campus for recreational purposes, raising questions about safety, security and privacy of the campus, its community and visitors. Colleges and universities have an obligation to address such drone uses and carefully determine what is acceptable, and not, on their particular campuses.
It is important to note that any drone use on campus, to the extent drone operations occur in the national airspace, is subject to federal regulation, and also may be subject to state and local laws and ordinances. A sound college or university drone policy must therefore be consistent with the existing regulatory framework in place for drone operations and applicable to a particular campus location.
Unfortunately, the current regulatory landscape is difficult to navigate and ill-equipped to adequately address the increasing use of sUAS, and even less-equipped to deal with the use of sUAS on campus. Today, anyone seeking to operate sUAS for commercial purposes must petition the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for permission to operate by requesting exemptions from the many Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) applicable to manned aircraft operations. Once the petition, or “Section 333 exemption,” is granted by the FAA, the operator must then satisfy a number of additional procedural and conditional requirements prior to operation. University drone activities that are not expressly “recreational” arguably fall under “commercial use” and are thus subject to these federal requirements. As of January 11, 2016, 13 colleges and universities have received Section 333 Petitions from the FAA for a wide range of sUAS operations and uses2, and many more educational institutions have followed suit. In February 2015, the FAA has proposed rules governing sUAS operations, but those rules have yet to go into effect, and in their current proposed form, are regrettably murky with respect to the treatment of drone operations for academic purposes.
In the absence of a clear regulatory framework for sUAS operations on campus, it is all the more important that educational institutions become thought leaders in this cutting edge area, and develop policies and procedures for drone use on campus that allow them to benefit from the burgeoning sUAS market, while offering clear practical policies to curtail “rogue” uses of sUAS that pose a threat to a campus community.