“We have the equivalent of a small airline here at Virginia Tech.”

That's Greg Calvert; he's the UAS safety manager at the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, and the “airline” he’s referring to are the hundreds of students and faculty members who fly drones for fun, research, or education and the fleet of aircraft they operate — some off-the-shelf, others experimental models built from scratch.

Virginia Tech is a leader in drone research and policy — the university has a long history of innovation in autonomous systems, and the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership manages sites for two major federal unmanned-aircraft integration programs.

Now, amid a worldwide boom in commercial and recreational drone use, the university is carving out a role for itself as trailblazer in safely maximizing the potential these aircraft offer university communities.

Earlier this year, the university implemented an Operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) policy that enables drone flights on Virginia Tech property; more recently, the university’s UAS Oversight Committee released a set of protocols detailing how the policy is applied in specific contexts — for example, on the Blacksburg campus or for special events. The committee is hosting a town hall meeting to provide an opportunity for questions and discussion about the policy and protocols.

The meeting will be held Sept. 5 at 3 p.m. in the Brush Mountain Room at the Squires Student Center. The committee welcomes any interested members of the Virginia Tech community.  

Drones present unique opportunities and challenges for university communities, explained Craig Woolsey, a professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and a member of the UAS Oversight committee.

“Universities across the country are grappling with the issue of drone flights on campus,” Woolsey said. “The technology is so mature and so inexpensive that anyone can buy and fly a drone. That's really exciting because there are so many creative people out there with clever ideas about how to use these devices. But the population density on campus means that there’s also a greater risk of people getting hurt — or just very annoyed. We're fortunate that Virginia Tech has been at the forefront of developing and using unmanned aircraft, so we have a lot of folks who really understand the risks and the opportunities.”

The policy was developed over more than a year of dedicated effort by a broad cross-section of groups with a stake in the success and safety of this technology, including the offices of the Executive Vice President and Provost, the Vice President for Research and Innovation, Emergency Management, and Risk Management; the Division of Operations; the Virginia Tech Police; faculty representatives; and the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

“Our operations team is proud to be a part of the collaborative efforts in developing Virginia Tech’s new drone policy,” said Sherwood Wilson, vice president for operations. “We’re confident the framework will help fuel exploration and innovation in the skies over campus while ensuring the safety, security, and privacy of the campus community.”

The policy covers flights that occur on campus or university-controlled property; it also applies to operations of university-owned UAS and operations by Virginia Tech employees. In addition to reducing risks to safety, security, and privacy, it also facilitates compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and other federal and state laws.

The details of the policy and protocols depend on the nature and location of each operation. Flights on the Blacksburg campus must be approved in advance; an online application system streamlines the process. All operations that fall under the protocol must follow the FAA’s Part 107 rules for commercial operations of small unmanned aircraft systems (or an applicable exemption, certificate of authorization, or waiver) — even recreational flights that would normally be conducted under the FAA’s less-stringent “hobbyist” guidelines.

The policy also requires drone operators to obtain an FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate and complete a brief Virginia Tech UAS training program through the UAS Safety Office, which Calvert manages. The aircraft must meet all federal certification requirements and be registered with the UAS Safety Office.

The policy has specific protocols for flights on the Blacksburg campus, on Kentland Farms, at Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, and on other Virginia Tech property; third-party and commercial operations; flights that do not occur on university property; flights during special events; and flights with university-owned UAS that do not occur on university property.

For students, faculty, and staff who want to fly but whose certifications, aircraft, or operation don’t meet the policy’s requirements, the Virginia Tech Drone Park offers an alternative way to get airborne. The football-field-sized facility is the tallest in the country and doesn’t require registrations, certifications, or specialized training.

More details are available at the Flying at Virginia Tech site; for questions, contact the UAS Safety office at uassafety@vt.edu or (540) 231-7484.