Legal Brief

Drone Use on School Property
By TERRY S. MORROW/School Administrator, October 2018

RETAIL MERCHANTS ARE using drones for package delivery. Agriculture is employing drones for field inspection. Law enforcement is addressing crime from above. So it is not surprising that K-12 educators are finding opportunities and challenges involving drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration says drones “are increasingly being used in education, including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.” In Minnesota this fall, the Anoka-Hennepin School District in suburban Minneapolis has launched a trimester-long, two-period drone course for students believed to be the first in the state. The concurrent credit-bearing class, running 13 weeks, will enable students to obtain FAA certification as a commercial drone pilot.

Student demand is high for the course offered through Anoka-Hennepin’s Secondary Technical Education Program in cooperation with Northland Community and Technical College. The district’s FAA-certified flight instructor will help students build and program drones, learn aviation skills and explore the limitless applications for drone flight.

Permitted Flying
Drones may be flown on school property if legal requirements are met. The FAA issued a memorandum in 2016 on educational drone use stating the conditions under which drones may be flown at schools. The agency is updating its guidance to reflect the most current policy.

Generally, a drone operator must obtain FAA authorization before flight. A significant exception allows drone operation for hobby or recreational purposes without FAA authorization if:

» The drone is flown for hobby or recreational purposes only;

» The drone is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within a nationwide community-based organization’s programming;

» The drone weighs no more than 55 lbs. (unless otherwise certified);

» The drone operation does not interfere with and gives way to manned aircraft; and

» When flying a drone within five miles of an airport, the operator notifies the airport before flight.

A student learning how to operate a drone as part of a class constitutes a hobby or recreational purpose. Drone use as a part of science, technology and aviation-related education curricula or other coursework, such as television and film production or the arts, is consistent with the hobby or recreational use rule.

Faculty Excluded
Generally, school faculty do not fall under the hobby or recreational purpose rule, which prohibits operators from receiving compensation related to drone operation. Teachers may assist a student operating a drone, provided the student maintains operational control and the teacher’s operation is incidental. If a teacher provides more than limited assistance to a student operating a drone, the teacher must hold appropriate certification.

Schools may purchase drones, which must be registered with the FAA. School districts should check their insurance policies to determine whether a standard exclusion for aircraft is included. If a district purchases, maintains or rents a drone, it may be wise to obtain specialty aviation insurance.

Schools should review the FAA’s rules governing drone operation.

Liability Coverage
Schools may control drone use over their property and should consider prohibiting drone operation by third persons. FAA regulations prohibit operation of small drones “over anyone who is not directly participating in the operation,” which would include school sporting events, graduation ceremonies and other outdoor activities. Operators wishing to operate a drone over people must seek an FAA exemption.

School districts may wish to obtain liability coverage that specifically protects the district from claims related to losses stemming from third-party drone operation.

TERRY MORROW is associate director of management and policy services with the Minnesota School Boards Association in St. Peter, Minn. Twitter: @MNSBATMorrow