Federal Guidance on Drones to Impact Colleges and Universities

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP


On May 4, 2016, at the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) conference in New Orleans, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta made two big announcements affecting the unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) regulatory landscape. First, Huerta announced the creation of an advisory committee, led by Huerta and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, which will include members from a broad cross-section of UAS stakeholders to work on issues relating to the integration of UAS into the National Airspace. Second, the FAA issued an interpretive memo concerning the educational use of UAS, which clarifies the FAA’s interpretation and treatment of the operation of UAS by students and faculty at accredited educational institutions under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) (the “Educational UAS Memo”). The Educational UAS Memo has potentially wide-ranging implications for universities and drone use on campus.

In the Educational UAS Memo issued on May 4, 2016, the FAA (1) clarifies what is meant by “hobby” or “recreational” use under Section 336 of the FMRA, and (2) responds to the many inquiries from students and faculty at educational institutions, seeking clarification and permission to lawfully fly UAS in connection with coursework, research projects, and other academic purposes. 

Why this is Important to Educational Institutions:
If one is flying UAS for “recreational” or “hobby” purposes,  the UAS operation falls under Section 336 of the FMRA,  the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, and UAS operations under this rule do not require FAA authorization.  Instead, the UAS must still be registered (if applicable) with the FAA, and the UAS operator must follow the following 5 basic operating guidelines:

  1. the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use; 
  2. the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization; 
  3. the aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization; 
  4. the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and 
  5. when flown within five miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operation (model aircraft operators flying from a permanent location within five miles of an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport)). 

FAA’s interpretation of Section 336, pursuant to the Educational UAS Memo :
The FAA issued the following clarifying points concerning Section 336 of the FMRA (Special Rule for Model Aircraft):

  • A person may operate a UAS for hobby or recreational purposes at (i) educational institutions and (ii) community-sponsored events (described as “demonstrations at schools, Boy or Girl Scout meetings, science clubs, etc.”) provided that the person is:
    • Not compensated
    • Any compensation received is neither directly nor incidentally related to that person’s operation of the aircraft at such events
  • A Student may conduct UAS  operations in furtherance of his or her education at an accredited educational institution and in connection with his/her course work. Provided the student complies with the requirements of Section 336 of the FMRA, and does not receive any direct or incidental compensation for the operation of the UAS, such UAS operations will be considered “hobby or recreational” operations. For the purposes of the Educational Memo, “course work” covers:
    • Curricula pertaining to principles of flight, aerodynamics and airplane design and construction (aviation-related)
    • Other curricula, including science, technology and other academic curricula such as television, film productions, the arts, etc. (not aviation-related)
  • Faculty members who teach aviation-related courses at accredited educational institutions may assist students who are operating a model aircraft, as well as in connection with a course that requires such operations, provided that the student maintains principal operational control of the model aircraft (the faculty member’s manipulation of the model aircraft’s controls is de minimis, that is, incidental and secondary to student’s operation)
    • Note: This only applies to faculty teaching a course where operating the UAS is one part of curriculum but not the principal point of the course (such as an engineering or film course).  In such case, the faculty member can conduct limited UAS operations as part of such course. This does not apply to courses related to UAS flight instruction, where the operation of the UAS is the principal point of the course. 
    • For additional clarification, a faculty member’s professional research objectives (for which he/she is remunerated), and use of a student for such purposes, would not be considered to be a “hobby or recreational” purpose, and therefore, UAS operations conducted for such purpose would require FAA authorization (i.e. Section 336 is not applicable). Thus:
      • If a faculty member is teaching a course, where operating UAS is a tool in furtherance of coursework that is not inherently UAS-related (and the faculty engages in de minimis instructor participation (i.e. to take over a student’s activities due to demonstrative or safety reasons)), the FAA would interpret such activity to be a “hobby or recreational” use under Section 336.
      • If a student or faculty member operates UAS for research on behalf of that faculty member, or in connection with the faculty member’s professional duties and compensations, such UAS operation would not qualify under Section 336, and would require FAA authorization.
      • It is important to note that the Educational UAS Memo is issued in advance of the final rules, expected to come out this year, and its content may be adapted or modified in light of the rules.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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