Cleared for takeoff: FAA recognizes educational exemption permitting drone use by student media

In a significant easing of its restrictive policy toward journalistic use of unmanned aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued new guidance clearing the way for students to freely use drones as part of educational activities.

The FAA memo, distributed May 4, broadens the definition of amateur “hobbyist” use — which requires no federal permit — to include the use of drones in educational settings when enrolled in an accredited educational institution.

To qualify as an approved educational use, the operator must be pursuing a relevant course of study — the FAA specifically mentions television and film production as an “aviation related” course of study, so the definition is forgivingly broad — and the operator must not be paid for the drone activity.

The new policy toward educational use of drones is a significant and welcome departure from the stringent approach announced by the FAA last year, which required all operators — including educational institutions — to obtain a certificate or waiver from the agency before operating a drone, even for a nonprofit journalistic purpose.

The FAA’s reinterpretation largely tracks recommendations made by the Student Press Law Center in April 2015, when the agency first floated its drone regulations for public comment.

Although the FAA’s reinterpretation significantly liberalizes the ability to use drones in student journalism, there are important limitations. The agency requires that hobbyists using unmanned aircraft remain within the operator’s line of vision and stay a safe distance away from highly populated areas (such as, in an example specifically given by the FAA, over a stadium during a game).

Whether a faculty journalism adviser could participate in operating the drone remains uncertain, but the FAA guidelines counsel in favor of a cautious, hands-off approach. The agency said paid faculty may engage in minimal use of the aircraft if operating the drone is a secondary part of the curriculum, giving the example of a class in aircraft design in which testing the craft’s airworthiness was an ancillary part of the course. It’s unclear from that illustration whether a class focusing on drone journalism would qualify as a course in which operating the aircraft is “secondary.” 

The limitation on receiving pay to qualify for the educational-use exemption may cause anxiety for some college media organizations where journalists are salaried, and how strictly the FAA will interpret the compensation requirement remains to be seen in practice.

Looking at how the FAA has interpreted its rules about flying planes for compensation in the past, the agency appears to take the common-sense view that, if the compensation is conditioned on making the flight and would not be paid but for making the flight, then that qualifies as flying “for compensation.”

So it makes sense for newsrooms to take the same approach in evaluating whether their own drone use qualifies as an uncompensated educational use: would the student receive less compensation (or none) if a drone wasn’t used? If so, then that’s not an exempt hobbyist activity.

Of note, being classified as a recreational hobbyist user still does not relieve an educational operator from the requirement of registering the aircraft with the FAA if it weighs more than .55 pounds. 

Student media can, of course, still pursue licensure from the FAA if the publication wants to maintain a paid “drone journalist” position, but it will be reassuring to those using drones only occasionally that a less onerous flight path has now been cleared.