Drones Are Here – How Will and Can the University Handle Them?

Pitt–Johnstown geography instructor Ahmad Massasati had been using drones to teach his students aerial mapping since 2014 when, during one flight in February, the drone froze in mid-air. It just hovered, refusing to follow its flight plan. Another student’s drone simply wouldn’t take off. That’s when Massasiti realized the tiny, unmanned aircraft were following new rules.

Massasati and his class were in a park four miles from the Johnstown campus, which put them less than a mile from an airport – a violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone rules created in 2016. They soon realized the drones had come pre-programmed to sense their locations and stop when they wander into a controlled area.

Drone use on campus has long brought up unanswered questions: Where am I allowed to fly? Whose permission must I seek? “The biggest fear was, I am a University [employee] and the drone is University property,” Massasati said. “Any problem: is the University liable?”

To answer these questions, Pitt is formulating new drone rules for all campuses, governing who can use them and how, and what uses will be covered by the University’s insurance policy.

FAA regulations for drones in commercial use (which includes academic use) say they must:

  • Be under 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.
  • Get FAA permission to fly in an airport’s airspace.
  • Be registered with the FAA.
  • Be flown by a pilot who has received an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate – a drone pilot’s license.

The FAA also adds safety tips:

  • “Never fly near emergencies such as fires or hurricane recovery efforts.”
  • “Never fly over groups of people, public events, or stadiums full of people,” which effectively eliminates safe drone use on Pitt’s Oakland campus.

While Massasati has earned his remote pilot certificate, the FAA classifies students as recreational drone users, so they don’t have to be registered pilots.

Drones have transformed Massasati’s class. “Any student can fly the drone, any time they want,” he said.

Instead of buying government mapping data or hiring a plane and an expert aerial photographer, he can quickly teach his students how to use Pitt–Johnstown’s drone – which looks a bit like a helicopter – and download its data using drone-to-map software.

Drones have been in use on Pitt’s campuses since at least 2011. That year, the Department of Athletics employed a drone to take aerial shots at the South Side football practice field and other locations to enhance sports videos produced for ESPN. But that drone has since been mothballed, said Paul Barto, associate athletic director for broadcast video production.

“Once the laws started to become a lot more strict, the University got concerned with liability,” Barto said. Nowadays, his department hires licensed freelance pilots with their own drones for such shots

Massasati with drone

Many Drone Uses on Campuses

Allen DiPalma, director of the Office of Export Controls Services, is guiding the rules formulation. His office has looked at other schools’ rules and has prepared drafts of University guidelines for drone use, including a potential drone use application, guided by Rob A. Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, and other University offices.

Drone use on campus can include:

  • University-sponsored research.
  • Promotional activities, such as marketing and athletics.
  • Facilities management, such as surveying construction projects and current buildings for maintenance.
  • Public safety (for police to fly over an emergency scene or augment a search and rescue).

The University is concerned about drone use, DiPalma explained, because machines can malfunction, for one: “You’re walking down the street, you don't want to be hit by a drone. You don’t want a drone to hit your car either.

“On our campus, there’s a lot of expectations of privacy,” he added, including residence halls and locker rooms, not to mention rooftop sunbathers. Pitt Police, when they spy drone use on campus, have been “politely approaching everyone and asking them to stop their activities,” DiPalma said.

Liability the Main Concern in Drone Use

Figuring out how to insure the University for the wide variety of drone uses and users, he said, is the primary challenge. Will the University cover academic uses only, or hobbyists who happen to be flying their drones on campus? Will it cover University employees using only University-owned drones, or will it cover their own drones as well? Will it cover University-owned drone use off campus?

“I think we need to treat the regional campuses differently,” DiPalma said, since they have more open spaces. Some universities have gone so far as to create netted outdoor drone parks, since the net creates a de facto indoor space, avoiding FAA regulations.

Most schools DiPalma has studied have a review and approval process for drone use. “It’s too early to tell” whether Pitt will institute such a policy, but it is contained in the initial draft of University rules on drones.

Call for University Community Input

“We are being very careful, getting as many opinions as we can on this guidance before we take the next steps,” DiPalma said. That includes asking for reviews and approvals from student and faculty groups, up through the Office of the Chancellor and Board of Trustees.

“We’re trying to be sensitive to everyone’s needs and opinions on it,” said DiPalma of the new drone rules. “We want to hear from you, Pitt community.”

Send your drone policy suggestions to dipalma@pitt.edu.



Marty Levine, martyl@pitt.edu, 412-758-4859