By SHANNON O. WELLS
In 1936, when the use of unmanned aircraft systems had begun to shift from strictly military into civilian use, the Academy of Model Aeronautics created a one-page safety code that satisfied the Federal Aviation Administration for the then-foreseeable future.
“The safety code led to an amazing history of safe operations,” noted Pitt’s Allen DiPalma, director of Pitt’s Office of Trade Compliance (OTC). “And in 80 years there were only six recorded fatal accidents, which was quite amazing. And it’s because of this track record that the FAA largely ignored the practice of model aircraft flying for a number of decades.”
The FAA maintained this laissez faire approach until the early 2000s, by which time primitive versions of the drones that fly above and around us today — and can be purchased at retailers like Target and Walmart — were being developed.
The ensuing growing pains included confusion and extensive legal wrangling between the FAA and the rapidly multiplying numbers of drone operators. Negotiations between the FAA and Congress, and the regulations that resulted, inspired Pitt — beginning about four years ago — to develop its own campus-specific unmanned aircraft systems/drone policy.
DiPalma shared the evolution of the regulations during his policy presentation to the Senate Research committee on Dec. 16. The committee unanimously approved the policy, which will now be reviewed by Pitt’s Faculty Assembly, Senate Council, senior leadership and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s office.
The policy applies to the operation of drones on behalf of the University, as well as uses of drones on property that Pitt leases or owns. It does not apply to drone operations by Pitt Police or other first-responder operations. DiPalma identified four primary factors supporting the policy: FAA regulations, privacy, safety, and national security export control consideration.
“We saw so much advancement — and so much evolution in the FAA regulations especially — that we had to have something that was responsive to that,” he explained. “It needed to be flexible for people in the Pitt community.”
FAA and Pitt policies
Pitt has been working on a drone policy since at least 2018. Because many FAA rules already cover drone flights, Pitt makes clear in the policy that, “drones may be flown for commercial, hobby or recreational, or educational purposes, provided flights strictly follow current FAA guidance for each purpose.”
FAA regulations for drones in commercial use, which includes academic use, say drones must:
Be less than 55 pounds
Be kept in sight during flight
Fly only during daylight hours
Rise a maximum of 400 feet
Avoid flying near other aircraft or people
Have owners obtain FAA permission to fly in an airport’s airspace and not be operated in a manner that endangers national airspace system safety
Be registered with the FAA, marked on the outside with the registration number, and operators should carry proof of registration while flying the drone.
- Be flown by a pilot possessing a FAA Remote Pilot Certificate, a drone pilot’s license.
The FAA requires that recreational drone operators:
Fly only for recreational purposes;
Follow safety guidelines of an FAA-recognized community based organization
Keep drone within visual line of sight or use a visual observer
Give way to and do not interfere with another aircraft
Take the Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) and carry proof of test passage when flying
Do not operate your drone in a manner that endangers the safety of the national airspace system.
Some policy rules specific to Pitt say drones:
May not be used inside any University-owned or leased building. Exceptions must be requested through the Office of Trade Compliance website.
May not be used to monitor or record areas where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as offices, classrooms, labs and more.
May not be used to monitor or record sensitive institutional or personally identifiable information, which may be found, for example, on an individual’s workspaces, computer or other electronic displays.
Because of the evolution of federal laws and FAA regulations, the committee developing the Pitt’s drone policy felt strongly “that University review and approval of all drone flights would be burdensome and unnecessary.” Instead, the policy recommends a notification process through the Office of Trade Compliance that allows Pitt to “keep record of, and to alert Pitt Police of, any commercial drone flights.”
DiPalma communicates with faculty, staff and students who use drone technology on a regular basis, especially for research.
“I already know that there’s a lot of regulations covering us,” he said. “We wanted to be sure that we not only had a thoughtful policy in place that wouldn’t overburden our fliers and then (be) legally responsive to the FAA and other laws, and finally, national security requirements, which are continually changing and evolving.”
University-directed drone flights are authorized for certain reasons outlined in the draft policy, but the OTC must receive notification of all drone flights scheduled to occur on University property “not less than 24 hours” before the flight.
“We’re proposing a simple notification for directed flight so we can keep record and notify Pitt Police who need to know what’s happening on our campus,” DiPalma said. “And with so many other requirements being aimed at our faculty, staff and students, we felt that there was enough coverage in other areas to allow for a less burdensome practice.”
The only exception would be for indoor flights.
“The FAA does not regulate indoor flights, only outdoor, and for this will require an exceptions process so we can review and approve these things through facilities management, and the school, to account for any safety (and) privacy issues,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, these will be approved in short order as long as they don’t want to wreck into a building or destroy something, basically.”
Regarding heliports, the FAA’s initial guidelines that required drone flyers to get approval before entering airspace has changed.
“It’s no longer restricted airspace. It’s no longer to be considered as an airport,” DiPalma said of helicopter pads. “In general, heliports should no longer be treated as airports unless they are in an airport restricted airspace.”
In the case of the heliport at UPMC Presbyterian on Lothrop Street, DiPalma emphasized safety requirements:
Give way to all manned aircraft and not pose a collision hazard.
Keep your drone within the visual line of sight or use a visual observer.
Don’t operate a drone in a manner that endangers the safety of the National Airspace System.
When it comes to issues of privacy and private property, state and local laws fill in some gaps that federal laws don’t cover. “So if you shoot down a drone, for instance, you’re technically shooting down an aircraft. And that falls under the FAA regulations,” DiPalma noted. “If, however, you notice (a drone) is being flown recklessly or spying on you, then the state or local laws will typically take over.”
Laws passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in 2018 say a drone cannot be operated to “intentionally or knowingly conduct surveillance of another person in a private place,” including “peeping tom” flights.
“Now there’s still some ambiguity in this language, but the message is pretty clear,” DiPalma said, adding that “just a simple flight over someone’s property, as long as they’re not surveilling or carelessly operating it, typically is OK.”
State vs. county regulations
State law also prohibits municipalities from creating laws and ordinances regarding ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft systems unless authorized by the state; and limits flights at state parks except for “designated flying sites” at six specific parks.
“The last two are important for local municipalities to create laws ordinances regarding ownership or operation of UAS, unless expressly authorized by the state,” DiPalma said. “That’s a state law here.”
Allegheny County had prohibited drone flights in county parks and had posted warnings, but agreed to remove them when new Pennsylvania laws were passed in 2018.
“In 2021, Allegheny County agreed to take down the signs because they were put up illegally, so it’s no longer illegal to fly a drone in Allegheny County parks,” DiPalma said. “However, other FAA safety guidance and state safety and privacy guidance still is in effect. … You can fly a drone in a park now, as long as you follow the other rules.”
Following DiPalma’s presentation, with a quorum in place, the Senate Research Committee approved the policy, which will be forwarded to Faculty Assembly for consideration.
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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