Flying Drones at School: What do you Need to Know?

08 September 2016

The humble days of marbles, kite flying, glow in the dark yo-yos and Scooby-doo bracelets are sadly behind us. It’s a heartbreaking realisation but pogs are no longer playground currency. Students have moved on and teaching methods are not too far behind. To teachers, tired of having their lessons fall on deaf ears, drones (essentially, robots of the sky) are flying in the face of traditional teaching methods.

Drones are small robotic aircraft that can be flown by students via remote control. Over the years, personal drones have become increasingly popular and nowadays their market and potential application extends to everyday classroom learning. Purchasing drones has become increasingly easy and they are currently available at most technology retailers as well as in Apple stores and camera shops across the country.

In line with their growing popularity, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has eased the rules and regulations around small aerial vehicles, with the Federal Government recently passing legislation which will allow people operating very small commercial drones (those weighing less than 2 kg) to do so without certification. Schools can currently fly drones recreationally without certification or licensing and these new reforms will make it all the more accessible.

Drone expert Dr Catherine Bell has stated that "there is no regulation around the purchasing of it, they are relaxing the laws on very small aircraft so it will be interesting to see the kind of effect that is going to have."

Drones in classroom learning

Schools across the country are experimenting with ways to incorporate drones, droids and robots into the classroom environment. Is this the beginning of a dark, dystopian future? Probably not.

Drones have endless curriculum applications, with Year 8 students at Mandurah Catholic College in Western Australia designing a drone obstacle course race as part of National Science Week. Other schools, including Mabel Park High in Melbourne, have developed extracurricular activities where students build and use drones, a reality sandbox and robotics.

Such initiatives have been met with overwhelmingly positive responses, with Year 7 student Nikki Te Kura-Tayle stating that the incorporation of robotics has made learning more interactive and exciting. "Science is more about having fun and experimenting and trying new things rather than just writing out simple experiments," Nikki said.

The drone obstacle course race is not only a fun way of living out our Back to the Future dreams, it’s also tied to many important academic skills. Year 5 students at St Luke’s Anglican School were taught to program co-ordinates to guide drones through an obstacle course. The students controlled the drones with an app on mobile phones and programmed the drones using a coding program on an iPad. The teacher, Ian Sinclair, stated that the activity required students to perform many mental backflips, "they've got to know their angles, they've got to know distances, they have to convert time to distance, they have to foresee what movements the drones are going to have."

Programming co-ordinates, coding drones and flying them, give students the core skills needed for future careers. Dr Benjamin Taylor holds that "probably three-quarters of these students will be working in a STEM-based (science, technology, engineering, maths) field and probably about 50 per cent of those will have a job that hasn't been invented yet." The continued use of robotics in education will only continue in schools as STEM and STEAM-based activities grow in popularity.

Some other ways to incorporate drones into your lessons:

  • Photography: aspiring student photographers and videographers can use drones to capture aerial imagery, thus applying learnt principles on a completely new level;
  • Mathematics: students can apply their knowledge of trigonometry to the design and operation of their own drones and can also practically experiment with concepts such as stall speed (the slowest speed at which a drone can fly before falling out of the sky) when planning drone flight; and
  • Information technology: student programmers can learn to dissect and re-program their own controllers in order to get them to do things according to the student's imagination. Students can also code on tablet apps in order to program and co-ordinate their drones.

More suggestions can be found here, as well as here.

And for the lateral thinkers out there…English classes can also stage inquiries into the morality and ethics of drones, do they take us one step closer to a Terminator-style Armageddon? Legal Studies students may consider potential breaches of privacy law – how do the neighbours feel about our drone love? Art students can attach paintbrushes to drones and experiment with post-modern painting styles…the possibilities are sky high.

What are the limits?

As the old adage goes, ‘you can’t fly a drone if you don’t follow Federal regulations’. It’s true. Students and teachers wishing to take their drones out for a spin have to be aware of the CASA guidelines for aerial flight, as well as concerns around invasions of privacy.

Drones must be flown within the visual line-of-sight (so not at night), students must be able to see the drone with the naked eye (this means without binoculars), drones must not fly closer than 30 metres to vehicles, boats, buildings or people, and they must not be flown over populous areas such as beaches, heavily populated parks or sports ovals. It also goes without saying that drones should fly away from other aircraft, so at least 5.5 km from airfields, aerodromes and helicopter landing sites. For more information, schools can have regard to Part 101 Civil Aviation Safety Regulations or the CASA rules.

Additionally, the possibility of mounting a camera to a drone for aerial photography and videography raises important privacy concerns. Unlike aspiring student directors, neighbours may not appreciate the artistic value of a good bird’s-eye view shot. They may even have some issues with their drying laundry being caught on camera.

Privacy law and its regulation of drone flight with the use of video or photography devices is, however, unchartered terrain. While CASA can regulate the safety of our air spaces, it cannot regulate privacy concerns. Moreover, the Commonwealth Privacy Act currently does not extend to individuals flying drones such as recreational fliers.  Schools should consider how the taking of photos or video via drones may impinge on another person’s privacy before allowing students to take images of people during drone flying activities.

Due to the lack of clear legislation in this area, some city councils have taken to implementing their own measures, with Leichhardt Council recently banning drones in parks and public spaces.

Special Counsel Mathew Craven states that the regulation of privacy in the age of drones is unclear and lacking, "in Victoria at least, taking video footage, without recording audio, of what is happening out in the open in your neighbour's backyard does not contravene the Surveillance Devices Act."

While drones are yet to cause a public stir, CASA issued 15 infringement notices to recreational drone users in 2015. In 2014 there were also more than 1000 warnings for drone safety breaches. Currently, drone fliers can be fined from $900 to $9000 for unauthorised use.

Schools can technically allow students to fly drones over private land, but this is a dangerous path.  Schools may be liable for the tort of nuisance as they are unreasonably interfering with a person’s use and enjoyment of their land by keeping them under surveillance or ‘snooping’ on their activities. The surveillance of a drone may also be a form of harassment, especially where the intent is to ‘peep or pry’ on the person.

Additionally, while planes may have no problem flying over the property of others, drones may also be liable of intruding into private airspace if the intrusion is at a height which disturbs the ordinary use and enjoyment of the landowner. There are no rules as to what height a drone needs to be flown at to avoid trespassing on private land, but it is a general rule that flight should not affect the owner’s use and enjoyment of their property. This means drones should not gate crash any family BBQs and respect the privacy of neighbours at all times. Drone fliers shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Namely, avoid flying drones over private property.

School policies

Schools wishing to incorporate drones and other model aircraft into their curriculum activities will undoubtedly be met with resounding student enthusiasm. There are, however, important workplace health and safety considerations, as well as concerns around student duty of care and intrusions of privacy. School policies should set out guidelines for the safe and appropriate usage of drones in classroom activities. Teachers should be made aware of the legal guidelines and also be trained in the appropriate usage of these nifty flying robots.

If properly managed, drones are an irreplaceable piece of modern technology with innumerable rewards for young learners, but as with all things new, they must be properly introduced and regulated in order to ensure maximum student and teacher safety.

Does your school have drone policies and procedures? 


CompliSpace Media

CompliSpace is an Australian company that helps over 600 non-government schools across Australia with their governance, risk, compliance and policy management. What makes us different is that we monitor over 200 sources of legal and regulatory change to ensure our clients have the updated policies and tools they need to meet new requirements. We share that knowledge with the broader Education community via School Governance.