Drones have been a subject of debate after authorities at the University of Mississippi issued a ruling in 2017 barring recreational drone use unless an official pilot is present. The abrupt ruling forced a UM drone club to disband.
Taylor Brame helped inspire the drone club’s founding. “What is a drone club if you can’t have drones anywhere on campus? It was not our choice to terminate,” he said.
When club members saw The Daily Mississippian’s cover story “Ole Miss Campus No Drone Zone” published in February 2016, Brame said they immediately reached out to Barbara Russo, who drafted the policy. The club was not able to negotiate a location where the club could continue to practice flying.
“The only place they could think of was 30 minutes away, but they never even followed through with approval,” said Brame.
Brame said he tried to reason with them, but his proposal for a drone-racing team was continually vetoed. “It was like they were constantly working against us and looking for a way to sweep us under the rug.”
Without a place to fly and a wholesale ban on drones, Brame said the drone club’s advisor discontinued his relationship with the club.
In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration published a Part 107 summary defining the rules for small unmanned aircraft. It was determined that to fly a drone, a person must first receive a pilot’s license because drones are considered aircraft. The FAA reauthorized and introduced a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate that a person can attain to fly a drone.
UM Instructional Assistant Professor Ji Hoon Heo said he helped write a drone regulation for Ole Miss based on FAA Part 107 rules with his colleagues, former Emergency Coordinator Barbara Russo, and former Director for Photography and Communications Robert Jordan.
Apropos this regulation, an administrative “No Drone Zone” policy was signed prohibiting all recreational drones on campus due to proximity of the airport. Students were restricted from flying unless they are with a Part 107 certified pilot at Ole Miss flying for educational use or as a staff photographer.
The drone club formed on the UM campus, but disbanded after the policy was announced. The Office of Leadership and Advocacy said the club was not terminated for arbitrary reasons, but that its leaders chose to end it.
Brame said it’s unnecessary to make a blanket-ban on recreational drone use and label it as a criminal activity. “Can you say, ‘drone discrimination?’ We created a campus community of drone-makers. We don’t want to feel like we’re being branded as “criminals.”
The club engaged in the craft of drone-making, etching circuitry boards, and in the sport of drone-racing, flying drones through mazes of ‘race gates’ against other racers.
Drones encourage innovation and act as a gateway for intellectual discovery, according to Brame. “It would make the university look like an inclusive STEM haven, but policymakers think it is not in everyone’s best interest to reach that ideal.”
Heo said the UM administration was justified in passing the policy. “They have the right to do that because it’s for the safety of everyone.”
Heo said small planes drive as low as 200-300 feet; conversely, drones can get up to 400 feet. “If you’re in a Cessna, it’s impossible to see a drone until it hits you.”
In 2017, Journalism 353 Drone Journalism was offered for journalism and IMC students. The course allows students to fly in the presence of the licensed instructor, Professor Heo.
Students meet on the intramural field in groups (each with a drone-operator and an observer) and perform drone exercises, such as the basics of taking off and landing, and maneuvering sets of cones arranged in various patterns.
Heo said students must produce a journalism project. “We do everything from pre-production,” he said. “Students give me storyboards. We discuss planning, look at maps and get the necessary credentials to fly (in specific areas). I go out with each of the groups and shoot it. Then students come back and weld it together.”
All drones must be registered with the FAA, whether commercial or recreational. Students must also follow Part 107 regulations concerning speed, flight level, restricted airspace, and visual line of sight.
“It’s not as easy as just putting a drone up. You have to plan and call the right people,” said Heo.
Amanda Drew has succeeded Barbara Russo as UM emergency coordinator. She helps advise drone policy as it relates to safety and risk management.
“I’m here as a resource,” she said. “If people have questions, they can come to me for help, or I will redirect them to the right people.”