Education

Evolving concern on Iowa campuses: drones overhead

As popularity grows, so do worries - and questions

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right) and MacLean Hall (bottom right) are seen in a Sept. 17 aerial photograph. This photo was taken by a licensed drone pilot following Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right) and MacLean Hall (bottom right) are seen in a Sept. 17 aerial photograph. This photo was taken by a licensed drone pilot following Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — With the growing popularity of drones, and security worries that have increased with it, some universities around the nation including the University of Iowa are taking a closer look at policies regulating the crafts over campus amid questions about who controls the skies.

The UI said it is revisiting its 2-year-old policy, which it recently updated, in light of “constantly-evolving federal laws and regulations.”

The UI policy, similar to that of some other universities, instructs that “drones are not permitted to launch, land, or flyover university property unless an explicit exception is granted.” It adds that “no hobbyist or recreational use on university property or with university-owned drones is permitted.”

The policy establishes an approval process, which the university says bolsters — rather than conflicts with — Federal Aviation Administration rules.

“The policy was enacted to provide a means for the university to ensure that all drone operations over its property are compliant with FAA regulations, university policies, and all other applicable laws, rules, policies, and regulations,” a UI statement said.

The university said its policy is not a regulation of the airspace above campus but “simply a requirement that drone operators obtain university approval prior to launching from, landing on, or flying over university property.”

Federal officials say that only the FAA has the “authority to regulate aviation safety, the efficiency of the navigable airspace, and air traffic control, among other things.”

“State and local governments are not permitted to regulate aircraft (including drones), such as flight paths or altitudes, or the navigable airspace,” according to an FAA statement provided to The Gazette.

However, cities and states — or universities — do have the authority to regulate aircraft landing and launching sites, as they involve local control of land and zoning, according to the FAA.

Drone popularity has soared nationally as technology improves and more citizens and businesses engage in personal and private sector use. Drones have become valuable in research, education, facilities management, data collection and marketing.

But with the surge in use has come mounting concerns — including the potential they’ll be weaponized, violate privacy rights or endanger pedestrians below.

The UI is hardly alone in enacting policies on airspace above campus.

The University of Minnesota prohibits drones “on university property and in airspace over university property.” The University of Michigan restricts outdoor use of drones “by anyone from, on, or over” campus. Indiana University restricts drones “on or above” the campus.

But Larry Stephens, director of Indiana University’s insurance, loss control and claims department, said his institution is updating its policy language.

“That’s language we haven’t fixed yet,” he said. “We no longer try to regulate who flies over our property because we can’t. But we can regulate who takes off and lands on our property, and that’s what we do.”

Iowa State University’s drone policy, like the UI’s, requires some form of approval. But spokesman John McCarroll said his institution is not a “drone no-fly zone.”

“ISU requires those persons taking off, landing, and/or operating from ISU property to request permission,” he said. “However, ISU does not require those persons operating (unmanned aircraft systems) solely in the navigable airspace over university property (where takeoff, operation and landing takes place off ISU property) to request permission or comply with university policy.”

The University of Northern Iowa has a policy similar to ISU’s requiring approval for launching, landing or operating of a drone from university property.

Regulating the increasing us of drones proves to be complicated, said Clinton Speegle, a U.S. Army aviation officer who now works as a lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., where he focuses on aviation law and NCAA compliance.

He has written five university drone policies. None include specifics about launches and landings, and none has been challenged.

Speegle said the caveat that only federal authorities control airspace “makes sense.”

“The federal courts have said that FAA law pre-empts municipalities or other public entities from regulating the air space,” he said.

But he argued a university’s decision to impose tighter regulations doesn’t impede federal regulations, which already are strict in their mandates over where, when, how high and how fast one can fly.

“This whole conundrum is a 21st century problem that is addressable only by constitutional analysis — it’s a police-powers issues. It’s a pre-emption issue,” he said. “Which is fascinating to me. The Founding Fathers, I’m sure, did not anticipate flying objects like a drone when they wrote the Constitution.”

An FAA spokesman said the U.S. Department of Transportation is providing insight “on how to best involve local jurisdictions in the integration of (unmanned aircraft systems) into the airspace in a way that also alleviates their concerns.”

Earlier this month, the UI announced a drone-policy update creating a new approval form and streamlined workflow for drone use. Officials noted the procedure will cut the time to process and approve requests to within two weeks.

Thursday, UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said the university is "committed to continued compliance with applicable laws and regulations." Thus, she said, the UI "will be revisiting its policy in light of constantly-evolving federal laws and regulations, including the recent passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018."

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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