A brief unknown drone flyby during the recent NCAA baseball tournament at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville helped push a University of Arkansas policy announced Monday (Aug. 31) that prohibits drones – and any other “unmanned aircraft systems” – from flying over campus property without prior approval.
The announcement also comes just days before Razorback football begins the 2015 season on Saturday (Sept. 5) in Fayetteville against the University of Texas at El Paso.
“Public safety is the primary purpose of this policy,” University Police director Steve Gahagans said in a statement. “Drones and model aircraft can be useful, even fun, but are also potentially dangerous – if they malfunction they could injure anyone on the ground. Beyond that there’s the potential that they could be intentionally used as weapons. And finally they could potentially be used to take video or still images that violate student or employee privacy. These are all extreme examples, but they must be taken seriously. The only real option for us is to restrict use in order to protect the people on our campus.”
POTENTIAL CRIMINAL TRESPASS
UA spokesman Steve Voorhies said the unknown drone flyby, the falling costs of drones, and the rising use of drones caused university officials to put out a public policy statement.
“That (Baum Stadium incident) made everybody more aware of it, and we started researching other policies and what other schools were doing,” Voorhies said.
He said the policy also applies to a student production group that has used a drone on campus. The group will now need prior approval for drone use above campus property.
“The policy does permit use of an unmanned aircraft if approved in advance by the Provost and Vice Provost for Research and Economic Development, for use involving non-athletic venues,” noted the UA statement. “(O)r by the Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics, for athletic-related venues. To receive approval, the aircraft would have to meet all federal certification requirements, federal and state laws, and any Federal Aviation Administration requirements. … Violations of the policy, which is a part of the campus facilities use policy, may result in a criminal trespass warning and possibly arrest for those who do not comply.”
THE NEED FOR POLICY
Champ Williams, a professional videographer/producer at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, said the UA policy makes sense, and said UAFS has a similar policy. He said those who misuse drones make such policies necessary and, he fears, possibly too stringent. He cited as an example of irresponsible use a few interruptions in efforts to fight wildfires in western states because drones were in the flight paths of helicopters and airplanes.
“I do agree that there needs to be regulation. There needs to be something out there on policy,” Williams said, adding that “people can do really stupid things with drones. Everything comes down to responsible users. I take it really serious to be a good steward of how I use them.”
Williams, who has logged more than 100 hours on his newest drone, primarily uses the vehicle to pursue his wildlife photography interests. He does do a some project work, including providing drone coverage of the July 14 opening of a six-mile section of Interstate 49 in the Fort Smith/Barling area, and doing some early work for the upcoming Festival of Murals in downtown Fort Smith.
“The only time I’m (flying) over a public space is if I have been invited,” Williams said.
The rapid proliferation of drone use comes courtesy of falling prices.
“The biggest thing is that the price points have dropped dramatically in just a few years, and so that’s what is really driving it,” Williams said.
For example, a drone and camera platform costing around $2,000 can obtain a sophisticated, high-definition flyover shot that several years ago would have required use of specialty cameras, a helicopter and could have cost as much as $100,000.
NATIONAL DRONE DEBATE
As drone use rises, so does the level of debate about how best to regulate such activity in U.S. airspace. A September 2014 report from the Brookings Institute – “Civilian Drones, Privacy, and the Federal-State Balance” – said increasing civilian drone popularity along with concerns of government drone use raises big questions.
“The timing raises any number of big-ticket privacy questions. Two are recurring: which arm of the government (states or feds) ought to balance a proliferating technology’s benefits against its privacy costs; and which drones (government or private) will present the greatest threats to privacy,” noted report author Wells Bennett.
The Federal Aviation Administration continues to develop rules on drone use, and has a Frequently Asked Questions website page dedicated to the topic. The federal agency also issues spot rules. For example, when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia in September, civilians in that area are required to keep their drones on the ground.
Bard College, based in Annandale-On-Hudson, N.Y., created in 2012 the Center for the Study of the Drone.
“By bringing together research from diverse academic and artistic perspectives which have, up until now, remained fairly silent on the issue, we aim to encourage new creative thinking and, ultimately, inform the public debate,” according to the center’s website.
The center provides a weekly roundup via e-mail to any subscriber. The most recent roundup noted that the FAA recently issued a report of 600 incidents in which drones interfered with “the national airspace.” The report also noted that the Department of Homeland Security, FAA and Department of Defense are working together on developing electronic countermeasures to disable drones.