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Safe Use of Drones on Campus

Melanie Bennett, Esq., ARM-E
October 2020
FAA guidelines for registering drones and creating drone policies

K-12 schools, colleges, and universities regularly use drones for education, campus security, and promotional videography, but the increased presence of drones on campus adds to the potential for liability. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in response to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, clarified its guidelines for the registration and use of drones.

With this clarification, your institution can more easily register drones and create comprehensive a policy.

What Is a Drone?

Drones are unmanned aircraft flown by a pilot on the ground, usually using handheld navigation equipment displaying 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.

Institutions use drones for research and videography. For example, some institutions record aerial views of their campuses for promotional purposes or tape athletic and marching band practices for review by coaches and band leaders. Drones also are 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.

FAA Drone Registration

The FAA is responsible for regulating and overseeing the use of all aircraft, including drones. Drones weighing more than .55 pounds must be registered via an FAA online system.

FAA regulations allow those over age 16 to register a drone provided they pass an aeronautical test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center. After passing the test, the drone pilot can complete an online application to receive a Remote Pilot Certification.

Most students, even those 16 and under, can fly drones under the less restrictive Special Rule for Model Aircraft. Fliers whose operations meet the requirements can operate a drone without certification, though the drone owner must still register with the FAA. Although the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 formally repealed the special rule, the FAA continues to implement it.

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 airport operators and air traffic control towers receive prior notice of drone flights within 5 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 the institution doesn’t own and operate. 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 drone policy via email, news releases, and signage. Educate new students and staff on the policy and the application process during orientation.

By following FAA guidelines and creating drone policies, your institution can increase the use of innovative technology while continuing to prevent risk.

Additional Resources

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