May the 4th Be With Us

Apparently the FAA is populated by Star Wars fans as they took this unofficial Star Wars Day to give a huge nod of support to students learning to loose their earthly gravitational bonds.

FAA Memo picThe announcement at the AVUSI conference in New Orleans was made with typical FAA understatement.  Most in attendance were hoping the long, long, looooooong awaited new regulations freeing up the hands of general public operators of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) was upon them.  The proverbial 333 boot was not lifted from the neck of routine, responsible drone operators, but we educators did get a present: a new, formal interpretation classifying routine educational users of drones as “hobbyists.”  This greatly reduces the restriction on teaching-related endeavors that utilize flying robots, finally bringing drones into the realm of reality for vast swaths of America’s educators.

The notice from FAA's 333 informational page on May 4, 2016. Such delays (now averaging close to 8 months) in obtaining ministerial permits are a thing of the past for routine educators. Image: modified after FAA's webpage.
My modification of the notice on the FAA’s 333 informational page on May 4, 2016.  Such delays (averaging close to 8 months at the moment) in obtaining ministerial 333 permits are now a thing of the past for routine educators.

Those of us conducting academic research or working for for-profit companies must still go through the relevant Certificate of Authorization (COA), 333 Exemption, Experimental Waiver, or similar such permitting process (or partner with an entity that itself has equivalent airspace control or waivers or such as the U.S. Navy or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as we here at CSU Channel Islands have done).  But this new clarification finally allows my fellow professors to teach with drones.  No longer does the art professor teaching photography, biology professor instructing students how to measure the sizes of animals from afar so as to not disturb them, nor the dance students hoping to record their in-progress dance routines from a higher vantage point need to suffer the burden of hiring their own airplane pilot to stand next to them while they operate their $50 camera-equipped drone than can fit in the palm of their hand (as is the case at the moment).

I have been fortunate, spending the past five years developing deep ties to drone professionals, retired aircraft pilots, and resource management agencies that form the core of our existing Aerial and Aquatic Robotic Research group here at CSU Channel Islands.  All the while we have been forced to hire aviation consultants, lawyers, and spent years crafting the first-of-their-kind institutional policies for the appropriate use of drones (or Unmanned Aerial Systems, as I am formally required to describe them).  This was all directed at obtaining the relevant permits and being given permission to invent the first interdisciplinary drone education and research effort on the West Coast focused on training students to professionally manage the coast with robotic technology.  Our students are now learning to collect data that is otherwise too expensive or risky to capture while simultaneously grounding our students in policy, legal issues, ethical concerns, data analysis, and the like to produce well-rounded and responsible creators and users of this technology.  Most of my colleagues did not have the ability to sink that much time into permitting, training, and the myriad of barriers erected by the risk-averse.

A Boost To Educators Across Our Campus & Country

This is a massive game changer for those of us in education.  I must get 20 emails a month from colleagues across our campus, professors at other universities, and science teachers from high schools across California seeking help with the byzantine legal morass that is the current permitting process for flying.  “I think drones are a great way to engage students who might initially be turned off to science [and related STEM fields]” said a community college teacher to me last month.  While hungry to gain experience themselves and begin to incorporate this technology into their pedagogy, most of these bright-eyed, would-be drone educators balk at either the permitting process or the legal hurdles their risk managers at their campuses erect when they bring their drone education ideas to them.  In my experience those that are able to convince the drone-averse administrators walk straight into the “permitting pit.”  Most of these folks seem to rapidly validate Nietzsche‘s famous axiom (paraphrased by me for the drone age):

He who fights with FAA monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.

And if thou gaze long into the permitting abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

As a consequence of the onerous requirements of the legal landscape prior to today, many campuses are trying to teach their kids to use drones in indoor settings such as cafeterias or gymnasiums.  Such hoops and limitations have stifled what should be a rapidly-growing expertise and made such learning much more dangerous for students and teachers (but I digress…).  This new FAA interpretation should blow on that now-sputtering flame and help to ignite a true fire that will both improve the number of safe users of this technology and encourage responsible operation of these platforms.  This will also allow students to learn to use drone technology in the much safer, outdoor settings of a ball field or blacktop.

Already, our own campus is buzzing with excitement.  I just grabbed a quick lunch with two of our Biology professors and they are clearly pumped.  Dr. Rachel Cartwright who studies whale behavior noted this decision “is going to open up opportunities to train her biology students in this cutting edge technology.  Our students will be better able to use drones in their educational and (eventual) research endeavors both along our California coast and in Hawaiian waters where we bring undergraduates each Spring.  The existing permits we have secured to study whales with drones do not permit me to train students.”  Dr. Geoff Dilly who works on ocean acidification and invertebrate physiology noted “it will open up many new venues for teaching students how to explore both near-shore and subtidal communities.  Aerial surveys of dynamic coastal zones will add a whole new dimension to our instruction.”  He can see tremendous benefit for “both exploratory course offerings such as our newly developed freshman-level Channel Islands-focused educational track and our ongoing intertidal ecology courses.”

Graduating ESRM Senior Tevin Schmitt who took my inaugural “Introduction to Remotely Piloted Systems” course in Spring of 2015 overheard our conversation as he was grabbing a coffee and inquired what all the excitement was about.  He grew a huge smile, laughed, and the then quipped that “this will give us many more opportunities for class-based training in drones and drone-related methods, especially during the early stages of our undergraduate scholarship.  You know,” he said looking over at Sierra Hall, the just-opened home for our ESRM laboratories, “I took my first drone class towards the end of my college career, but now future students can begin to embrace this technology as freshman or underclassmen.  You guys are getting everything cool now that I’m leaving!”

Dr. Blake Gillespie from our Chemistry program heard about the FAA’s decision and wrote an email to me earlier this morning, an excerpt of which read:

“This will help two projects I’m developing, both of which involve correlation of changes in chemical composition of plants before, during, and after inflorescence and fruit setting.  The provisions for educational UAV work announced by the FAA will allow students in some of interdisciplinary classes to collect aerial images for uniform measurement of trees and shrubs in flower.  Until now, student-collected measurements were restricted to ground based images.  That raised considerable difficulties in terms of sample coverage and interference.  Now they will be able to aerially image the focal plants of during our lab activities, both flowering trees on campus, and ripening grapes at regional vineyards. The ease and completion of aerial images will allow collection of much more complete and comprehensive datasets and a deeper learning and training experience for our undergraduates.”

Maybe my ESRM colleague Dr. Kiki Patch, a geomorphologist currently building our first-ever drone-based LIDAR unit to document sand movement along our southern California coastline, said it best; “This is going to be great for our new Physical Oceanography course and soon thereafter for many of our classes.  Man!  Teaching students to collect beach profiles is going to jump into the 21st century in the fall!”  She then added simply “awesome” and several round of “this is sooooo cool!” as she hurried off to her next class.

I concur!

DSC_2524 IMG_0586

The Actual Memorandum

The link to the FAA’s full press release is here.  As the FAA sometimes changes material on their website without public notice, I’ve also embedded the pdf on our site below and posted the entirety of the text just below that.  Enjoy!

FAA Educational Use Memo May 2016

Please note that the FAA brilliantly posted a non-OCR pdf (because, you know: who would ever want to be able to lift the text from a legal decision…).  I scanned and ran an OCR algorithm to obtain the following text.  Please note that I did not include the footnotes for ease of reading this memo.  If you would like those footnotes, please see the original pdf posting via one of my above links.

Federal Aviation Authority Memorandum

Date:    May 4, 2016

To:      Earl Lawrence, Director, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office AUS-1 and

Jolm Duncan, Director, Flight Standards Service, AFS-1

From:   Reginald C. Govan, Chief Counsel,

Prepared by:     Dean E. Griffith, Attorney, AGC-220

Subject:            Educational Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)


This interpretation addresses: (1) use of unmanned aircraft for hobby or recreational purposes at educational institutions and community-sponsored events; and (2) student use of unmanned aircraft in furtherance of receiving instruction at accredited educational institutions.

There is uncertainty in the model aircraft community about when an unmanned aircraft is a model aircraft operated for hobby or recreation or is an operation requiring FAA authorization.  The FAA has received many inquiries from students and educational institutions offering coursework in the design, construction and operation of small unmanned aircraft with respect to the types of activities in which students and faculty lawfully may engage pursuant to the existing legal framework.

In light of these questions, we are issuing this interpretation to clarify that:

  • A person may operate an unmanned aircraft for hobby or recreation in accordance with section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of2012 (FMRA)1 at educational institutions and community-sponsored events2 provided that person is (I) not compensated, or (2) any compensation received is neither directly nor incidentally related to that person’s operation of the aircraft at such events;
  • A student may conduct model aircraft operations in accordance with section 336 of the FMRA in furtherance of his or her aviation-related education at an accredited educational institution.
  • Faculty teaching aviation-related courses at accredited educational institutions may assist students who are operating a model aircraft under section 336 and in connection with a course that requires such operations, provided the student maintains operational control of the model aircraft such that the faculty member’s manipulation of the model aircraft’s controls is incidental and secondary to the student’s (e.g., the faculty member steps-in to regain control in the event the student begins to lose control, to terminate the flight, etc.).

On June 25,2014, the FAA published in the Federal Register its interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, section 336 of the FMRA. 79 Fed. Reg. 36172 (June 25, 2014).  Currently, the FAA is reviewing the more than 33,500 comments to that Special Rule.  In addition, on February 23,2015, the FAA published in the Federal Register its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). 80 Fed. Reg. 9544.

Separate from these two actions, the FAA continues to receive a number of questions on the use of model aircraft to conduct demonstrations and on student use of model aircraft in connection with participation in coursework at educational institutions.  The FAA finds it necessary to clarify the applicability of section 336 of the FMRA and of the FAA’s operating requirements for UAS.   The FAA recognizes that UAS increasingly are being used in education, including science, technology, education, and math (STEM) education, which is the focus of President Obama’s Educate to Innovate Initiative.

Hobbyist Use of UAS to Conduct Demonstrations Section 336(a) of the FMRA provides special rules for model aircraft that require the aircraft to be:

  1. Flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;
  2. Operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization;
  3. Limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization;
  4. Operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and
  5. When flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic control facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operations (model aircraft operators flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of an airport should establish a mutually agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower).

If an unmanned aircraft is operated as a model aircraft in accordance with the above, then it is does not require FAA authorization. A key element in determining whether an operation may qualify as a model aircraft operation is that it must be flown for “hobby or recreational” purposes.  The FAA’s interpretation of section 336 relies on common definitions of the terms “hobby” and “recreational.”  Previous agency guidance addressed the parameters of hobby or recreational use:

Any operation not conducted strictly for hobby or recreation purposes could not be operated under the special rule for model aircraft.  Clearly, commercial operations would not be hobby or recreation flights.  Likewise, flights that are in furtherance of a business, or incidental to a person’s business, would not be a hobby or recreation flight.

The FAA interprets “hobby or recreational” use to include operation ofUAS to conduct demonstrations at accredited educational institutions or at other community-sponsored events provided the aircraft is not being operated for compensation, in furtherance of a business or incidental to a business.  Therefore, a model aircraft hobbyist or enthusiast lawfully may fly UAS at accredited educational institutions or other community-sponsored events to promote the safe use of UAS and encourage student interest in aviation as a hobby or for recreational purposes provided the hobbyist receives no compensation of any form (including honorarium or reimbursement of costs), or any such compensation neither directly nor indirectly furthers the hobbyist’s business or operation of the UAS and he or she follows the provisions of section 336.

Student Operation of Model Aircraft for Educational Purposes

If not operated as “model aircraft” under section 336 of the FMRA, currently there are three ways to lawfully conduct unmanned aircraft operations in the United States: (1) as public aircraft operations pursuant to the requirements of the public aircraft statute and under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA; (2) as limited commercial operations by type certificated UAS, provided the operator obtains a COA from the FAA; or (3) pursuant to a Section 333 of the FMRA grant of exemption based on the Secretary of Transportation’s determination that a certificate of airworthiness is not required, and provided the operator obtains a COA from the FAA.

Each of these three methods is available to educational institutions (including their faculty and students) that want to operate UAS, including for commercial, research and development, and any other non-hobby or non-recreational purpose.  Each, however, requires the educational institution or its faculty and students to meet statutory prerequisites and obtain from the FAA the requisite approvals (in the form of exemptions and COAs).

Many educational institutions are keenly interested in having students operate unmanned aircraft as model aircraft under section 336 of the FMRA in connection with their academic coursework at those schools.  The educational community contends that these operations not only meet the definition of model aircraft but also meet the unique need of students, which is learning how to design, construct and operate small unmanned aircraft as a component of a variety of science, technology and aviation-related educational curricula.  Students also are interested in operating small unmanned aircraft for other educational purposes such as in connection with television, film, or photography courses.

The FAA has considered whether a student’s course work of learning how to operate and use a UAS constitutes a hobby or recreational activity within the meaning of section 336’s definition of model aircraft.  The FAA believes students operating UAS as one component of a curricula pertaining to principles of flight, aerodynamics and airplane design and construction promotes UAS safe use and advances UAS-related knowledge, understanding and skills.  UAS also may provide students a useful tool in other academic curricula such as television, film production or the arts generally.  Although it may be argued that the student’s knowledge and skills obtained through such coursework are necessary for a diploma or degree, which subsequently can lead to an aviation-related job or increased earning potential, the FAA finds this link simply too attenuated to transform student UAS use, as a component of an accredited educational curriculum, into a non-hobby or non-recreational use within the meaning of section 336.  A person that operates a UAS strictly for hobby or recreation learns about principles of flight, aerodynamics, and airplane construction may subsequently use such knowledge when gainfully employed, but that does not transform what is otherwise a hobby or recreational activity into a non-hobby or non-recreational pursuit.

Therefore, we find that the use of small unmanned aircraft by students at accredited educational institutions as a component of science, technology and aviation-related educational curricula or other coursework such as television and film production or the arts more closely reflects and embodies the purposes of “hobby or recreational” use of model aircraft and is consistent with the intent of section 336 of the FMRA.  Accordingly, the FAA concludes that student use of UAS at accredited educational institutions as a component of their science, technology and aviation related educational curricula, or other coursework such as television and film production or the arts, is “hobby or recreational use” within the meaning of the FMRA.  The student is, however, responsible for meeting and complying with all other elements required for lawful model aircraft operations pursuant to Section 336 of the FMRA, including the student not receiving any form of compensation (including reimbursement of costs, honorarium, etc.) directly or incidentally to his or her operation of the model aircraft.

Faculty Use of Model Aircraft

The FAA recognizes that faculty participation in the student’s learning experience often is an integral component of the student’s educational experience and that faculty should be able to participate in and contribute to the unmanned aircraft activities in which students can engage as hobbyists.  However, a faculty member engaging in the operation of an unmanned aircraft, as part of professional duties for which he or she is paid, would not be engaging in a hobby or recreational activity.  Rather, the faculty member is being compensated for his or her teaching or research activity, including any UAS operation arising from or related to the faculty member’s teaching a course or conducting research.

Likewise, a student operating UAS for research on behalf of a faculty member is associated with the faculty member’s professional duties and compensation and, thus, is not hobby or recreational use by the student pursuant to section 336.  Student operation of UAS for the professional research objectives of faculty renders the operation non-hobby or non-recreational.  Accordingly, a faculty member conducting research may not rely on section 336’s concept of “hobby or recreational use” to either operate a UAS or direct student UAS operations in connection with such research.

Nevertheless, faculty teaching a course or curricula that uses unmanned aircraft as a component of that course may provide limited assistance to students operating unmanned aircraft as part of that course without changing the character of the student’s operation as a hobby or recreational activity or requiring FAA authorization for the faculty member to operate.  The FAA finds that de minimis limited instructor participation in student operation of UAS as part of coursework does not rise to the level of faculty conducting an operation outside of the hobby or recreation construct.

This limited circumstance would apply to courses at accredited institutions where the operation of the unmanned aircraft is secondary to the design and construction of the aircraft, such that the primary purpose of the course is not operating an unmanned aircraft.  For example, an instructor teaching an engineering course in which construction and operation of UAS are one part of the curriculum would be able to conduct limited UAS operations.  In that case students would fly UAS to test the validity of design or construction methods to show mastery of the principles of the course.  The faculty member’s UAS operation would be secondary to the purpose of instructing engineering courses.  In contrast, this limited circumstance would not apply to a course related to UAS flight instruction.  In that case, the student’s primary purpose for taking the course is to learn to fly a UAS and flight would be expected to be demonstrated on a regular basis.  In that case, the faculty member’s UAS operation is closely tied to his or her purpose of instructing how to fly a UAS.


UAS may be used to conduct demonstrations at schools or other community-sponsored events provided the person operating the aircraft is (1) not compensated, or (2) any compensation received is neither directly nor incidentally related to that person’s operation of the aircraft at such events.  Students that operate model aircraft in connection with fulfilling an accredited educational institution’s curricula lawfully may conduct model aircraft operations for hobby and recreational purposes pursuant to section 336 of the FMRA, provided they do not receive compensation, directly or incidentally, arising from or related to such operations.  Faculty at these educational institutions teaching such curricula may assist students with their model aircraft operations under section 336, provided that the operations are used to teach such curricula to students enrolled in those courses and the faculty member’s participation is limited to de minimis participation in the student’s UAS operations.  We emphasize that these operations must be conducted under the provisions of section 336.

The FAA emphasizes that faculty members who wish to operate UAS outside of these parameters must seek authorization though one of the three methods discussed above.  We also note that this interpretation was drafted prior to issuance of the final rule for Operation and Certification of Small UAS Rule and this interpretation may need to be revisited depending on its provisions.  See 80 Fed. Reg. 9544 (Feb. 23, 2015) (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking).

Please contact my office with any questions about this memorandum.


Update: Media Coverage

We’ve been getting lots of inquiries and interest from folks in the wake of this FAA announcement.  Some of that includes the media.  Here are a few of those:

Tim & Kelsey KEYT News 06-06-16d Elliot & Kelsey KEYT News 06-06-16b

Our May 6th CSUCI Press Release New FAA guidelines let CI students fly has been picked up by various outlets and web crawlers (e.g. Central Coast News, KEYT, WN, etc.).

2 thoughts on “FAA Lets Students Fly!”

  1. Great Article. blog post . I was enlightened by the specifics ! Does someone know if my business can locate a template FAA Draft Job Aid Operator Application to Conduct Data Link Operations form to type on ?

    1. Rita,

      I’m not sure what you are looking for exactly. Are you looking for a form to use in data collection or simply for the application per se.


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