While many American college campuses are embracing drone technology in research and even new academic programs, a handful of universities are cracking down on what they call unauthorized drone use.
Last week, the University of Arkansas banned all unmanned aircraft systems – including model aircraft – over university property without prior written approval.
“Public safety is the primary purpose of this policy,” University Police director Steve Gahagans said. While he admitted that drones are useful “and even fun,” Gahagans justified the drone restrictions by claiming potential (albeit improbable) misuse justified new regulation. “If they malfunction they could injure anyone on the ground. Beyond that there’s the potential that they could be intentionally used as weapons,” he said, adding, “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.”
The University of North Carolina recently announced a similar restriction after a journalism professor asked permission to fly a drone to capture aerial footage for his department and was subsequently denied. Given that the most publicized requests seem to be shot down, some are questioning where the line falls between authorization requirements and a de facto ban.
Ironically, academia has also been one of the greatest beneficiaries of drone tech, with colleges receiving numerous research opportunities as well as fledgling academic programs centered on UAV tech.
For example, researchers with Oregon State University are measuring atmospheric temperatures with fiber optic thermometers suspended from unmanned aircraft thanks to a National Science Foundation.
Just up the road from UNC, in Raleigh, N.C. State has opened up several new drone research and academic programs including a Firefighting Drone Challenge.
Last year, the University of Louisiana at Monroe became one of the first institutions to offer a drone concentration within its aviation department. In the fall of 2014, Troy Universitybecame the first university in Alabama to offer a program in unmanned aerial systems.
Internationally, the University of Southern Denmark recently launched a two-year Master’s of Science/Engineering program in drone technology. Dubbed “the first of its kind in Europe,” the program is expected to launch in September and SDU officials say it will produce engineers who will “develop technology for the drones’ budding industry adventure.”