Drones: Coming to a School Near You

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird!  It’s a plane! No…it’s an unmanned aerial device!  No longer the stuff of science fiction, we hear nearly every day about new stories in the media involving unmanned aerial devices – aka drones:

  • La Guardia-Bound Jet Has Close Call with Drone (May 29, 2015, NBCNEWYORK.com)
  • Dallas Cowboys using drones to prepare players (May 27, 2015, CBS)
  • Man detained for trying to fly drone over White House fence (May 14, 2015, Daily News)

The FAA predicts that there will be approximately 30,000 commercial/government drones operating in the U.S. on a regular basis by 2020.  (February 8, 2012, Business Insider)

What Impacts Might Drones Have On Schools?

Potential Applications

The potential uses of drones by schools include classroom and instruction (e.g., photography, geography, physical sciences); grounds, facilities and maintenance (e.g., inspection of the condition of remote fencing, large/high structures, and out-of-reach mechanical equipment); sports and athletics; the delivery of materials to homebound teachers and students; and campus security.

Legal Overview

On February 14, 2012, the President signed into law the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (P.L. 122-95), which established a “special rule for model aircraft” (Section 336).  Congress has generally exempted drones from the FAA regulations so long as the operation of such aircraft is not connected to a “commercial” or business concern.  The use of drones by schools likely does not constitute commercial activity.  However, individuals operating drones for hobby or recreation are “strongly encouraged” by the FAA to follow safety guidelines, including the following:

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
  • Remain clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
  • Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying
  • Don’t fly near people or stadiums
  • Don’t fly an aircraft that weights more than 55 lbs. (including “payload”)
  • Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft

Since 2013 over 20 states have established laws regulating the use of drones and California is no exception.  The so-called “anti-paparazzi” law of 2010 (Civil Code section 1708.8) was recently amended to capture the rise in personal drone use by making a person liable for invasion of privacy when using  the drone to engage in prohibited activities.

Potential Legal Issues For Schools

Following is a starter list of the possible legal ramifications related to the operation of drones in the school context:

  • Physical injury to persons and property resulting from the unsafe operation of a drone;
  • The invasion of the personal privacy of the occupants of private residences in the vicinity of a school vicinity, or the personal privacy of students of school staff in a restroom or locker room;
  • The failure of an operator to comply with local operational standards, regulations, and laws, such as notifying an airport control tower of drone operations within 5 miles of the airport;
  • The violation of the National Air System regulations by operating a drone above authorized altitudes;
  • Converting instructional or educational uses of drones into a “business” by offering drone services for compensation.

How To Minimize Risks Associated With Drone Operation In Schools

As drones become a more common feature in schools it will be crucial to minimize the risks that could arise from their use.  The first step is to develop and implement policies, regulations and protocols with clear, comprehensive operational parameters.

It will also be important to make sure a school’s procurement manager works closely with “end-users” to acquire drones appropriate for the intended use.  For example, schools will not need instructional drones with the capacity to travel long distances or carry heavy payloads.

Those performing risk management functions should be included early on in the acquisition process so that the necessary and appropriate adjustments to insurance policies can be obtained before drone operations begin.

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