Evolving Rules for Drones at School

Type: Article
Topics: School Administrator Magazine, Technology & AI

December 01, 2016

Legal Brief

Unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, are becoming increasingly prevalent in our skies. Whether delivering missiles behind enemy lines or an Amazon order to your doorstep, these devices are no longer science fiction but staples of everyday life. It should come as no surprise that school districts across the country are exploring ways to make educational and productive use of these flying robots. Filming football or marching band practices, snapping a memorable photo of a graduating class or patrolling school grounds for security purposes are just a few common school applications.

There are legal considerations for drone use at our schools, as well as pitfalls.

Federal Control

The Federal Aviation Administration has exclusive control over all U.S. airspace and regulates the use of civil aircraft, including drones, under three separate categories: civil, public and model aircraft. Figuring out which classification applies to drone use by schools has been tricky because the FAA’s standards were not written with educational institutions in mind.

School districts typically will seek to qualify their drones as model aircraft, which entail much less stringent requirements and don’t require a pilot’s license. To be eligible, they must be flown strictly for hobby or recreational purposes, weigh no more than 55 pounds and meet other criteria spelled out in the agency’s regulations.

Meeting the hobby or recreational limitation has been a challenge until recently because most school-related uses don’t precisely match that description. To allay those concerns, the FAA issued a guidance memo in May interpreting hobby or recreational use to include many types of educational drone operations. Curricular activities relating to flight, aerodynamics, and airplane design and construction or other coursework such as television and film production or the arts now are covered.

An important qualification is that the operator may receive no compensation for flying the drone. This rule poses little difficulty for students. Drone operation by faculty generally is prohibited because teachers are paid for their work, although the FAA will allow staff to provide limited assistance to students in case of emergency. This limitation has drawn criticism from many in the education community because it impedes staff’s ability to demonstrate proper use for their students.

Even when drone use is permissible as a hobby or recreational activity, other requirements must be met. (For a handy reference, visit the Know Before You Fly website, developed in consultation with the FAA, http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/for-recreational-user/.)

Not all drone use in the school setting will qualify as model aircraft. For example, architects or construction contractors doing business with your district may have an interest in using drones for their own purposes. They most likely would have to satisfy the more rigorous requirements for civil aircraft, although an exemption exists for flights under 200 feet.

Can a school district prohibit the use of drones altogether? The FAA takes the position that it can regulate airspace from the ground up and that attempts by landowners to impose their own standards encroach on the agency’s jurisdiction. Opposing viewpoints exist in the legal community on this issue, so consult with your district’s legal counsel on the prevailing law in your jurisdiction.

Liability Coverage

What about liability for accidents? No responsible school administrator would permit a potentially dangerous activity without adequate insurance coverage in place, but don’t assume you’re covered just because you’ve met the FAA’s regulatory requirements. Many school districts in my state of New Jersey have been warned by their carriers that losses from drone use are not covered. Be sure to check with your district’s insurance adviser to avoid unpleasant surprises after it’s too late to protect your district.

Bottom line: The legalities around drone use in our schools are complex and evolving, and this overview barely scratches the surface. But with competent legal advice and proper insurance coverage in place, your district can avail itself of all the benefits this state-of-the-art technology has to offer.

David Rubin is an education attorney in Metuchen, N.J. E-mail: rubinlaw@att.net. Twitter: @dbresqnj


David B. Rubin

Education Attorney