Students’ on-campus drone use unfettered by policy


Author: Melina Devoney

The drones students may have spotted hovering over campus this semester were likely piloted by Bo Gao (sophomore) or Malone Hedges (first year) for their respective photography and film projects.

According to Associate Dean of Students Tim Chang, the drones are allowed on campus at this time because the college does not yet have a drone policy. The administration is working to release one by this fall that will use both Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and “common sense.”

In the meantime, Chang, who is only aware of La Encina’s drone use on campus, hopes students will use prudence when using drones on campus.

According to La Encina Manager Emma White (senior), Gao is the only yearbook staff member who uses drones. She said that the yearbook will feature one picture taken by a drone last semester, but none taken this semester.

Gao said he owns two drones that he occasionally flies for aerial photography of school events such as the Involvement Fair and rugby games.

Whenever he pilots his drone, Gao said he notifies Campus Safety and everyone on the ground below his flight zone and follows FAA UAS regulations for height limits, privacy and safety.

Because he is worried that students’ irresponsible drone use may jeopardize rights regarding the technology for professional use, Gao proposed a “Flight Manual on Campus” to Campus Safety earlier this month that draws from FAA regulations. Gao suggested limiting drone flight to 30–400 feet above the ground, mandating that the pilot keep the UAS in site at all times and restricting flight above athletic facilities, during music events, over areas with large groups of people such as the Academic Quad or close to people or windows without acquiring permission in advance from anyone who may be filmed.

Without official campus drone guidelines, Gao is wary about ethical flying by other pilots.

“It becomes my concern that not everyone follow or know about the rules of [UAS],” Gao said via email. “It is important to let both the student body and drone hobbyist know more about drones before they get upset (or already have) or crash into buildings and even people.”

In recent weeks, Gao noticed an unfamiliar drone flying above campus.

Hedges, who owns the other drone, said that he received the DJI Phantom 3 model this past Christmas and has been taking videos and photographs around campus since returning from winter break. The drone’s 4K camera allowed Hedges to practice taking footage while panning around buildings and following predetermined paths, he said. Hedges briefly spoke with Assistant Director of Student Conduct and Housing Services Tom Wesley to ensure the piloting of his drone was responsible.

While some people fear that drones breach personal privacy and think it common sense to ban them, others see no harm or may look for loopholes in the rules, Hedges said.

One such loophole is that Occidental’s private property only extends 83 feet above the ground due to a ruling in the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Causby, which states that only air below 83 feet can be considered private property. This height was originally determined to reduce the disturbance an airport imposed on a nearby farm, where air traffic frightened chickens and barely missed hitting tall trees, according to legal website Justia.

According to Hedges, even if Occidental bans drones on campus, anyone could fly a drone 84 feet above ground off campus and then fly it over campus legally.”

Hedges said that as long as pilots fly their drones in a way that is “not disruptive,” drones should be allowed on campus.

To put the potential privacy disruption from drones into perspective, Hedges compared drones to the Nikon P900 digital camera, which has the capacity to zoom up to a person’s face from miles away.

“If you look at drone footage that I have that is 20 feet from Stewie, you can’t see into people’s rooms,” Hedges said.

With that in mind, Hedges said there should be no concern with spying and privacy issues involving drones. He also said that rules should be flexible depending on how students choose to use drones on campus.

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