University seeks approval for campus-wide drone use

Jan Thompson, an SIU professor of radio, television and digital media, explains the operation of her drone Nov. 16, 2015, at her home. Thompson used the drone in Montana during filming for a documentary. ( file photo)

Jan Thompson, an SIU professor of radio, television and digital media, explains the operation of her drone Nov. 16, 2015, at her home. Thompson used the drone in Montana during filming for a documentary. ( file photo)

By Anna Spoerre, @ASpoerre_DE

The university is working to get Federal Aviation Administration approval to allow drone use outdoors on campus.

“We’re beginning to find the application is practically endless,” said Jim Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research. 

Drone operations are banned by the federal government without an FAA permit. 


Until the university gets one, students operating one of these aircrafts will be told to stop, but will not face fines or repercussions, Garvey said. Despite the outdoor restrictions, drone use is still allowed inside buildings and caged enclosures.

Garvey said the university is working to submit the permit proposal to the FAA by the end of the semester. He hopes drones will be allowed by spring, but said that may be overly optimistic.  

If SIU gets a permit from the FAA, Garvey said drones can be used in a variety of ways at the university, including aerial photography and animal tracking, as well as benefit university programs such as agriculture and aviation.

As unmanned aircraft systems become more popular, concerns about challenges the technology can present have prompted bans on federal, state and local levels. Earlier this month a rogue drone crashed into a Ferris wheel in Seattle, according to the Seattle Times. 

“Now everybody wants to use them, and that’s the thing that’s got everyone concerned,” Garvey said.

Individuals who wish to operate drones inside must first talk to University Risk Management. 

Garvey said the aircrafts present a safety issue because they can be dangerous if the user does not know how to properly operate them.


Jan Thompson, a professor of radio, television and digital media, has used drones in her work as a filmmaker. Thompson said she purchased a drone four months ago and used it to film in Montana, but has yet to use it on campus.

Drones can be difficult to operate, Thompson said. After crashing several of them, she realized how easy it is for an inexperienced person to mishandle one. She now brings two people to assist her when operating the drone while filming.

“It’s sad people aren’t taking the time to learn to operate these drones safely,” said Thompson, whose drone setup costs about $2,000.

She said many people have the misconception that drones are toys when they can actually be dangerous. However, she believes the university could be a key player in figuring out how to operate them safely.

“I think SIU is in a perfect place to be able to be a front-runner to help the FAA create standards and training,” Thompson said. “We should be the Midwest [region] training ground to certify people on how to use a drone.”

Thompson believes the aviation program could be helpful in this endeavor.

“It’s terrific technology,” Thompson said. “It’s a technology that’s not going to go away.”

Students and faculty in the agriculture department are already planning for the permit.

Chris Clemens, an instructor of plant soil and agricultural systems, said his department is hoping to prepare its students for the marketplace, and drones can help accomplish this. He said the technology can be used to monitor crops and make agriculture production more effective and environmentally friendly by monitoring the crops from a bird’s eye view.

Andrew Craig, an assistant instructor of aviation technologies, also wants to use drones in his program.

Craig said he is working with airport authorities to pioneer a course on unmanned aircraft systems. Craig said he plans for the class — which would introduce history, safety, regulations and the drone certification process — to begin as early as next year.

Garvey said he hopes drones will be part of campus life in the near future. Until then, he patiently awaits approval because this new territory is more challenging than people might imagine. 

Anna Spoerre can be reached at 618-536-3325 or [email protected].