Citing safety concerns, the University has issued new policies about drone usage on campus.

Due to their surge in popularity, Duke began developing its drone policies nearly three years ago. Drone operators are now required to complete an application before being granted permission to fly. Most areas are off limits for usage except for two regions in Duke Forest. Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh said that the rate of technological development around drones had outpaced rules for their use.

“As the technology was getting out in front of the legislation, it created somewhat of a natural conflict between appropriate usage and what the regulations were saying, especially from the [Federal Aviation Administration],” he said.

When Duke was crafting its policy, administrators were concerned that drones could interfere with the helicopters taking off and landing at the Duke hospital or harm nearby pedestrians in the event of a crash.

Cavanaugh noted that there have not been any incidents involving drones on campus, though there have been some cases in which people launched drones in Duke Gardens or elsewhere without realizing that it was not permitted.

John Board, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate chief information officer, led the team that developed Duke’s policy on drones.

The regulatory environment surrounding drone usage has been burdensome and murky until mid-2016 when the FAA released new operating standards, he said.

He explained that Duke had obtained a “Section 333 exemption,” which allowed the University to pioneer the use of drones at the Marine Lab, for instance. Last summer, a new regulatory framework for commercial drone usage, dubbed "Part 107," made it easier to use drones. A remote pilot’s license is required under the policy, and the drone must stay within specially-bounded flight areas, but there are looser requirements for those using drones as a hobby.

Duke’s new policy outlines a process for commercial drone flights on its property. Indoor use is allowed for educational purposes if the faculty responsible for the area determine that it is acceptable. Outdoor use must obey the federal rules as well as receive approval from a review team. An academic class that uses a drone for educational purposes can adhere to the hobbyist rules, Board said.

“They can apply at this point. We’re not guaranteeing that we will say yes,” Board said. “What we are hoping will happen is that something like a drone club will be founded, preferably one like the Academy of Model Aeronautics… they’re going to make sure flights are safe.”

Two portions of Duke Forest—Couch and Blackwood fields—were designated in the policy as areas where drone operations would receive streamlined approval.

Some requests for drone operations have already been received, Board said. Depending on the type of use requested, administrative offices including the Office of Risk Management and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research must assent.

Estlin Haiss, Trinity ’16 and an avid drone enthusiast, made it through his time at Duke before the implementation of the policy. After obtaining a DJI Phantom 3 drone in December 2015, Haiss used it to take aerial photos of campus and Durham.

Haiss wrote in an email that he reached out to administrators to ensure he was not breaking any rules, and they said there was technically nothing permitting him from flying at the time.

Under the new rules, however, Haiss would have had to make a flight request approval from several departments within the administration and student affairs.

“If I was still there, I'd definitely be a little bummed about it, but I think this describes my reaction pretty accurately:  ¯\_()_/¯,” he wrote.

Other universities have developed policies for drone usage as well.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, users must get pre-approval through the school’s police department. The policy explicitly states that no recreational or “hobbyist” use is permitted on campus. North Carolina State University maintains a similar policy, though recreational flights are allowed if users notify administrators in advance.

Board and Cavanaugh both noted that there are areas where the University can use drones in an official capacity, including research and operational needs. For instance, facilities staff may need drones to better inspect buildings or monitor traffic. These ideas are still under development, however.

Board emphasized that the technology and its implications are yet to be fully realized.  

“We are still feeling our way a bit on exactly what the parameters for safe drone use are, but we are eager for people to use unmanned aerial systems appropriately on campus for research and other purposes as it makes sense,” Board said.