The drone zone in higher education

Unmanned aerial vehicles see an increased role in campus safety and security

Following the multiple hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast this past September, several higher ed institutions used unmanned aerial vehicles or systems—or drones—to assess damage on campuses and beyond.

In Daytona Beach, professors from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University assisted local police by providing images both before and after Hurricane Irma. Drones were flown over municipal, private and commercial properties, detailing damage to roofs, roadways and critical infrastructure.

The popularity of drones has grown rapidly in the U.S. The number of UAVs, both commercial and private, is expected to rise from 800,000 earlier this year to more than 5 million by 2021, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Small, versatile and reasonably priced, drones provide higher ed institutions myriad opportunities.

In addition to offering degrees and minors in UAV systems, engineering and flight, colleges have been using drones for tasks such as taking pictures for marketing brochures.

“The uses of drones are limited only by the creativity of the people who want to use them,” says Henry M. Cathey Jr., deputy director of New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory, one of only seven FAA-approved drone test sites in the U.S.

Institutions also have been deploying drones in support of safety and security. Besides their usefulness after weather events, drones are helping to map campuses and monitor traffic.

Before getting any drone program off the ground, however, officials must consider best policies and practices, federal regulations and other practical concerns.

Defining the terms

UAV—Unmanned aerial vehicle—just the aircraft

UAS—A larger system that has a big ground station, not usually a single person flying a vehicle, and usually includes a controller and data link

Drone—Colloquial description of aircraft and systems

Preparing for take-off

As with flying a plane, flying a drone now comes with certain parameters and rules, most of which focus on safety. Before establishing a campus policy, institutional leaders must understand Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (see “6 drone regulations to know”), which dictates all UAV use, including safety, pilot certification, documentation of flight activities and registration of vehicles.

Any university drone policy has to strike a careful balance between mitigating liability and not impeding research efforts, says attorney Clint Speegle, a former Apache helicopter pilot and U.S. Army aviation operations officer.

For example, at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, the official UAV policy states that “all airborne tethered unmanned platforms operated as part of research-funded efforts require review and approval by the office of the vice president for research and economic development,” and are subject to FAA requirements, including a certificate of authorization.

“You can’t list every imaginable scenario, so a policy also needs to be broad enough to give you wiggle room to operate,” says Speegle, who wrote the 4th Infantry Division’s standard operating procedures for tactical UAVs.

Considerations should range from hobby applications all the way to research or commercial use, and include specifically where UAVs can be operated and who pilots them. A policy should create a system that coordinates and communicates with every department that has an interest in or will be impacted by flights.

6 drone regulations to follow

In June 2016, the FAA released Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, which established rules for drones. For more, read the Federal Aviation Administration’s fact sheet.

Key highlights:

1. Drones must be flown in sight of the pilot.

2. A drone cannot be flown over anyone who is not directly participating in the operation, which includes avoiding crowds.

3. Flying a drone requires a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating, or for a pilot to be supervised by someone who holds such a certificate.


Earning your wings

Although a hobbyist can fly a drone in their backyard, any institutional use of drones requires proper pilot training and certification.

“The police department can’t be given a toy and told, ‘Here you go,’ ” says Speegle. Pilots must be trained and learn about local flight paths and any air space restrictions. They should also understand state laws and Fourth Amendment privacy issues, Speegle says.

For Part 107 certification, a pilot needs to take a written exam at an FAA-approved test site. One mistake colleges sometimes make is trying to avoid the burden and cost of keeping pilots qualified and policies aligned with the latest FAA regulations—resulting in random personnel flying UAVs independently. That can endanger everyone’s safety.

“Every campus struggles with the FAA guidelines, even those with strong UAV programs,” says David Arterburn, director of the Rotorcraft System Engineering and Simulation Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The facility is affiliated with ASSURE, The Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (, which works with the FAA Center of Excellence for UAS Research to provide resources for UAV programs.

The entire campus needs to communicate and be on the same page so everyone involved—police, facilities, administration—knows when and where a flight is occurring, says Arterburn.

Taking off

Institutions have integrated UAVs into campus safety in logical ways. Arterburn’s university, for example, regularly deploys drones to map buildings and grounds.

“By having the latest imagery of a building—where the entrances and exits are, what obstacles there may be, what’s on the roof—and even video, first responders don’t have to rely on Google maps for tactical purposes during emergency events,” he says.

6 drone regulations to follow (cont.)

4. The FAA does not require drones to comply with current airworthiness standards or obtain aircraft certification.

5. The FAA strongly encourages adherence to local and state privacy laws in regard to remote sensing technology or photography.

6. Drones are subject to FAA inspection or testing upon request.

Although the FAA is still developing regulations, UAVs may soon provide real-time guidance to police and emergency personnel.

A few universities have been working to implement drones in monitoring traffic after football games and other campus events—the University of Nevada, for example, is even partnering with NASA for related research.

Although Part 107 rules forbid flying UAVs over crowds, a UAV safely hovering near a key exit route can provide real-time data to help police departments in a cost-effective manner.

“Why use a helicopter that’s going to cost $500 to $1,000-plus an hour to operate when you can use a Phantom drone, which costs just over $1,000 to buy, and with a battery can give you 30 minutes of airtime?” says Speegle. “You can buy three UAVs to look at certain areas of campus [regularly], and that’s equal to what you might spend on a helicopter for one weekend.”

In relation to traffic, drones can also be used to monitor parking lots for usage patterns, space availability and any emergencies.

At Kansas State Polytechnic, research teams are working to effectively use UAVs in inspections of vertical infrastructure such as electrical towers, transmission lines, bridges and cell towers. Drones are also involved in roof inspections.

“People can focus a little more clearly when they have both feet on the ground and are looking at a camera versus trying to balance themselves on a ladder and make sure their safety clips are in place while simultaneously doing an inspection,” says Kurt Carraway, executive director of the institution’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Applied Aviation Research Center. “It makes that inspection safer and more effective.”  

Carraway, a retired Air Force colonel who has flown Global Hawk UAS, expects FAA regulations to eventually allow for linear infrastructure inspections that go beyond the sight line of the operator—such as security fence perimeters of agricultural fields.

The University of Illinois has been involved in developing “The Flying Superintendent,” a drone-based system for monitoring safety and progress at construction sites. The system—which can capture actual images from the site and then compare them to plans—was used in the recent construction of the new arena for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

Such UAV platforms will increasingly be involved in campus construction, from stadiums to dorms.

“We’re really in the infancy of UAS usage,” says Kansas State’s Carraway. “I’m envious of the future these guys have to look forward to because it’s just going to continue to rapidly evolve.”

Ray Bendici is deputy editor of UB. 


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