Colleges and universities across the country are finding new and innovative ways to use drones in the classroom.  To name just a few, institutions of higher education are using drones to support research and learning in areas like precision agriculture, wildlife habitat monitoring, and aerial surveying and mapping.

While speaking at the AUVSI annual conference in New Orleans this morning, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the release of a new Legal Interpretation that will expand the scope of permissible UAS operations by students and educational institutions.  The FAA’s principal conclusions are:

  1. A person may operate an unmanned aircraft under the carve-out for hobbyist operators in Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) at educational institutions and community-sponsored events provided that the person is (a) not compensated or (b) any compensation received is neither directly nor incidentally related to that person’s operation of the aircraft at such events.
  2. A student may conduct model aircraft operations in accordance with section 336 of the FMRA in furtherance of his or her aviation-related education at an accredited educational institution.
  3. Faculty teaching aviation-related courses at accredited educational institutions may assist students who are operating a model aircraft under section 336 and in connection with a course that requires such operations, provided that the student maintains operational control of the model aircraft such that the faculty member’s manipulation of the model aircraft’s controls is incidental and secondary to the student’s.

The FAA cautioned that a faculty member engaging in the operation of an unmanned aircraft, as part of professional duties for which he or she is paid, would not be engaging in a hobby or recreational activity.  Similarly, a student operating UAS for research on behalf of a faculty member is associated with the faculty member’s professional duties and compensation and, thus, is not hobby or recreational use by the student pursuant to section 336.  Faculty and students in these situations would need to seek and obtain authorization from the FAA.

The FAA also concluded, however, that limited instructor involvement in student operation of UAS as part of coursework does not automatically make the flight non-hobbyist or commercial in nature. This would include courses at accredited institutions where the operation of the unmanned aircraft is not the primary purpose of the course (for example, using drones as part of an agricultural science class).  This exception for limited instructor involvement would not extend to classroom courses where the primary purpose of the class is UAS flight instruction.

While the new Legal Interpretation won’t eliminate the need to seek and obtain authorization from the FAA for all UAS flight activities at educational institutions, the announcement is welcome news and a step in the right direction for expanding drone use in academia.