Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

Unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAVs”), also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs) or  drones, can be useful research tools.  However, before you start flying, it is important to understand the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations governing the use of UAVs in the U.S. as well as Columbia’s policy governing drone use on campus.  

FAA and UAVs in Columbia Research

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) considers the use of UAVs in university-related research to be “commercial use” and, therefore, regulated by the FAA.  In 2016, the FAA issued the Small UAV Rule (Part 107), available on the FAA’s UAV Website. This rule permits commercial operation of small UAVs (< 55 lbs.) as long as operators abide by the rule’s required safety restrictions. These restrictions include, but are not limited to, a maximum airspeed of 100 mph and a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level.  The UAV must remain within the operator’s visual line of sight; the UAV cannot be flown directly over people; and flights are limited to daytime or civil twilight operations only.  UAVs can be flown in unrestricted (Class G) airspace without prior approval; however, additional approvals are required for flights within restricted airspace.  Finally, UAV operators must obtain a Remote Airman Certificate before operating the UAV.

A complete list of Part 107’s safety restrictions as well as information about how to obtain a Remote Airman Certificate is available on the FAA’s UAV website.  If you propose to fly a UAV outside of the Part 107 restrictions, the FAA has included a waiver process. The operator must submit an application to the FAA requesting authorization to deviate from certain waivable restrictions.  The FAA will then review the waiver request on a case-by-case basis. 


FAA Registration Requirement

Apart from the FAA’s Small UAV Rule (Part 107), the FAA requires that all UAVs > .55 lb. be registered with the FAA. Most UAVs can be registered online.  For more information on registering a UAV, visit the FAA’s registration website.


Columbia University's UAV Policy

If you’d like to fly your UAV on any of Columbia’s campuses, you must comply with Columbia’s policy on the use of UAVs on campus.  The policy requires that UAV operators obtain approval from Columbia’s Department of Public Safety prior to flying a UAV on campus.  For more information about Columbia’s policy and the approval process, see Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems on University Campus and Property, available in Columbia’s Administrative Policy Library. 


Other Regulations

If you plan to use a UAV in Columbia research outside the U.S., additional regulations may apply.

  • Local laws:  Other countries regulate the use of UAVs in their airspace.  Before you fly your UAV outside the U.S., you should be aware of and must comply with local laws.     
  • U.S. Export Controls:  If you plan to send or hand carry a UAV outside the U.S. for use on a Columbia research project, U.S. export controls restrictions may apply.  Prior to export outside the U.S., an export analysis should be conducted by Columbia’s Research Export Control Officer.


Where to Go for Help

Contact Columbia’s Research Export Control Officer

  • If you are interested in using UAVs in Columbia research activities
  • If you are registering a UAV that will be used in Columbia research activities
  • If you plan to export a UAV outside the U.S. for use on a Columbia research project
  • If you have questions about the FAA’s Small UAS Rule (Part 107), if you will be using a UAV > .55 lbs. or otherwise outside the scope of FAA’s Part 107, or if you are interested in applying for a waiver from the FAA