The small FAA change that means more to me than anything

sally french stuart pallet

The FAA announced a change to one of its policies that means more to me than anything before.

It’s not a leak about the announcements expected to come in June about commercial operation of small UAVs. It’s not about geofencing, or air traffic control, or registration, or any of the topics that are hot in the drone news world or discussed on the stage at conferences.

It’s this: the FAA this week announced that in the very near future, it will start allowing students to operate UAS for educational and research purposes.

“As a result, schools and students will no longer need a Section 333 exemption or any other authorization to fly provided they follow the rules for model aircraft,” according to an FAA statement. “Faculty will be able to use drones in connection with helping their students with their courses.”

I first got into drones when I was a journalism student at the University of Missouri. I needed one more credit to graduate by May 2013, and there was basically one class that fit in my schedule — a brand, new class called Drone Journalism. I hastily signed up the first week of January 2013 with no idea what I was getting into, or what even a drone was. I was hooked. We explored the use cases for drones in journalism — documenting environmental changes, covering protests or getting a bird’s-eye view of natural disasters. We learned how to fly, and heavily discussed safety, like flying near people and alerting relevant authorities when flying. We discussed laws (which were more often than not pretty vague) and ethics, like how to handle the drone looking over private property. That class changed my life.

And in July 2013, after I graduated, I learned the FAA shut that class down. Commercial use of drones, they said, was illegal. We argued it was an educational purpose, but the FAA argued since we paid tuition and the teacher received a salary, it was commercial. You can read the FAA’s letter to us here.

missouri drone class

The first time I ever flew a drone in early 2013 in an arena at the University of Missouri.

That was sad, but even more so — terrifying. In the myriad of incidents where drones crash near the White House or fly near airports, the thing people say is, “we need more education.” Ironically, the FAA prohibited a university from doing education. If college students training to be journalists who will inevitably use drones for reporting couldn’t learn safety, laws and ethics around drones while flying them, how can we expect drones to be used appropriately?

But what’s refreshing is that the FAA has learned over the years that it is allowed to reverse past policies. This May, the FAA has decided that a student doesn’t need to obtain the arduous Section 333 permit, which requires having a pilot’s license. They can conduct drone operations in accordance with Section 336 of the FMRA to help further their drone and aviation-related education.

This is a signal that the FAA is changing its tune — in a good way — by embracing, not banning, drones. While I am frustrated by the fact that my school’s drone journalism program was shut down in the first place, I am enthusiastic about the future drone pilots, who get to take classes and study drones more seriously in a formal institutional environment than many of this generation has ever had a chance to.

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