Drone pilots reminded to follow Penn State, FAA regulations

October 02, 2019

UNIVERISTY PARK, Pa. — As unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, become increasingly popular for both professional and recreational purposes, Penn State is reminding all drone operators of the federal regulations and University policies that regulate how, when and where these vehicles can be flown.

Jeremy Dericco, director of the animal, biosafety and isotopes (ABI) program in the Office for Research Protections, explained that both federal regulations and University policy are motivated by two main concerns: safety and privacy. He gave the examples of a malfunctioning drone crashing into a nearby pedestrian, or a drone being flown outside the windows of a private residence, to illustrate these concerns.

“We have our own policy, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has certain points that are required by law, so these two things are layered to work together,” Dericco said. “Our program is really built around both of those layers to make sure people are following the law, as well as University policy — which, in some ways, is actually more stringent.”

University purposes only

The first major thing all potential drone operators should be aware of is that, for the time being, only flights for official University purposes are allowed on Penn State property.

This includes use of drones related to research and work undertaken by faculty and staff, as well as third-parties contracted by the University, such as a photographer hired to collect aerial footage using a drone. All pilots seeking to use a drone for University purposes must go through a registration and training process detailed below.

Drones flown on campus must either be owned and insured by the University, or owned and operated by an approved third party approved to fly for official University purposes. If a Penn State employee purchases a drone with University funds or with the intent to pilot it for University-affiliated activities, the purchase must be reported to the Unmanned Aircraft Operations team in the Office for Research Protections, which can be reached at uas-orp@psu.edu or at 814-865-1775.

Jennifer Stewart, Penn State’s unmanned aircraft operations manager and compliance analyst, said that her office within the ABI program is working to create a reserved space for hobbyists to pilot their drones for recreational purposes, but that they are still working with partner offices across campus to implement this process in a safe and responsible way.

“We hope to expand into allowing hobbyists to be able to fly in the near future, and have been working with stakeholders across the University to locate designated locations where they could fly,” Stewart said. “But, once that is implemented, they would still need to go through the approval process. At the end of the day, safety is our primary concern.”

Registration and training

Every drone operator seeking to operate a Penn State-owned vehicle on University property is required to go through several steps before their flight can be approved. University Policy SY45 concerns the use of unmanned aircraft, and contains vital information for all potential pilots. Additional information is also available at Penn State’s Unmanned Aircraft Operations website and blog.

The first step for any potential pilot is to register any and all drones the pilot intends to fly with both the Office for Research Protections and the FAA. In addition to the guidance and forms available online, the Unmanned Aircraft Operations team can be reached directly at uas-orp@psu.edu or at 814-865-1775.

Once the vehicles are registered, the second step is filling out an insurance questionnaire and working with Penn State’s Office for Research Protections, who will coordinate with the Office of Risk Management to make certain the vehicles are properly insured.

The third step is to undergo standard safety training to ensure all pilots are properly educated on safely operating their vehicle. All pilots are required to complete five online training modules through Canvas, before going through a qualification flight check with one of the program’s standardization pilots, which is conducted in the field.

Once a pilot’s vehicles are properly registered and insured and the pilot has been trained and certified, the final step is to submit a request to fly. A request to fly will include information about the proposed day, time and location of the flight, and will be processed by the Office for Research Protections. Stewart recommends all potential pilots submit their request at least 10 days before the proposed flight.

Stewart also noted that some areas of Penn State property fall within controlled airspace, such as near the University Park Airport. For flights that are proposed within controlled airspace, Stewart said extra steps are required to obtain airspace authorization. Penn State also enforces additional restrictions on flights in crowded areas, during athletic events and other scenarios with additional safety risks.

 “Our policies and standard-operating procedures exist because safety is always our number one goal,” Stewart said.

For any additional questions, Stewart encourages members of the Penn State community to contact the Unmanned Aircraft Operations team at uas-orp@psu.edu or at 814-865-1775.

Last Updated October 10, 2019