Students Get More Latitude To Fly Drones At School

May 4, 2016

It just became easier for students to fly drones as part of their class work. The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday loosened restrictions on the use of unmanned aircraft in academia.

According to updated guidance, students can now fly drones under the same rules as recreational model aircraft as opposed to the much more restrictive commercial operations framework. This is encouraging news for the growing range of disciplines using drones at universities around the Northwest.

"Now that the FAA has issued this interpretation - and they actually were very good about clearly spelling out and giving examples of where this could and could not be used in an educational program - I think that will give a lot of educators a lot more confidence and ability to use these systems in the classroom," said Professor Chris Lum, who runs the Autonomous Flight Systems Laboratory at the University of Washington.

Lum said unmanned flying for research purposes still requires a "rigmarole" of paperwork and months of waiting for clearance. Hence some test flights may still have to take place indoors or outside the country, as before. Lum and his students have traveled to Australia during summer breaks in recent years to test fly their latest creations.

Via a press release, the trade association for the burgeoning unmanned aerial systems industry also welcomed Wednesday's FAA announcement.

"UAS are an exciting way to promote STEM education and wider use among young people will no doubt inspire the next generation of UAS operators and aviators,” said Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The guidance memo from the FAA indicates that a student must be the primary operator of a drone in an educational setting. Faculty can provide pointers and intervene in emergencies. But if a teacher is the chief pilot, the flying activity ceases to be "recreational" in the government's eyes because teachers do their jobs for pay.

Appearing at an industry conference in New Orleans Wednesday, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said his agency has nearly finalized rules for how to safely integrate civilian and commercial drones up to 55 pounds in weight into the national airspace. These long-awaited rules would replace the cumbersome case-by-case exemption process currently in place.

Numerous educational institutions in the Northwest have pending exemption requests to conduct outdoor drone flights.