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Professional Opinion

Drafting policies for a campus drone

This emerging technology provides both opportunities and challenges for universities
University Business, July 2017
Clinton T. Speegle is an attorney with the law firm Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He can be reached at cspeegle@lightfootlaw.com.
Clinton T. Speegle is an attorney with the law firm Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He can be reached at cspeegle@lightfootlaw.com.

Future use of unmanned aerial systems, more commonly known as “drones,” is limited only by the imagination (and physics). Needless to say, the use of drones for both commercial and private purposes will only increase. This emerging technology provides not only opportunities for colleges, but also headaches.

Balancing the benefits—from improved academic curriculum to research grants to enhanced fan experiences at sporting events, and everything in between—with safety and privacy risks is fast becoming a must-do item for every university. Simply adopting a campus policy that either prohibits or permits all drone activities is not appropriate balancing.

Inadequate guidance

Unfortunately, the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone rules are not a complete solution. Although Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations covers a broad spectrum of commercial uses for drones weighing less than 55 pounds, it lacks restrictions related to privacy.

Instead, the FAA defers to state and local laws. Nor does Part 107 address a substantial population of on-campus users who fly their drones only for personal, recreational purposes.

Part 101 applies to those users with the ambiguous statement that recreational drones may not be operated “so as to endanger the safety of the national airspace system.” It provides no specifics about operating drones safely and fails to address privacy. That means, in many instances, those issues may fall squarely on campus administrators to resolve.

Covering creativity

Here are a few considerations administrators should evaluate when developing drone policies around safety and privacy.

Part 107 provides common-sense safety restrictions that should be the minimum standard adopted by colleges; these include prohibiting drones from dropping of objects, carrying hazardous cargo or operating over people.

But these rules fail to touch on or provide flexibility for the imaginative uses that college students can develop for recreation or for research.

To cover creativity, campuses should establish an approval authority who can evaluate uses on a case-by-case basis. This alerts campus administrators to potentially dangerous drone operations so they can impose specific safety control measures. This type of policy also allows administrators to evaluate privacy impacts drones may cause.

The downside is that it places additional responsibilities on campus personnel.

Define boundaries

Federal restrictions can also be improved upon to enhance safety and privacy. Rather than parroting FAA language about the airspace where drones should be flown, campus policies should specifically state where users can or cannot fly their drones.

Designate known, easily recognizable campus locations as spaces where drones can be safely operated, and ensure that those areas are compliant with FAA airspace restrictions. Defining use boundaries can also establish zones of privacy around dorms, childcare centers and other sensitive facilities.

In essence, the policy can define corridors and operating areas that geographically/temporally position drones away from locations that are unsafe or intrude upon expectations of privacy. When it comes to privacy, campus policies should align with state laws, many of which now include drone-specific provisions.

Because each campus is unique, while drone policies should incorporate FAA and state regulations, they can’t rely solely on those baselines to effectively protect privacy and safety.


Clinton T. Speegle is an attorney with the law firm Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He can be reached at cspeegle@lightfootlaw.com.

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