A College Library Is Going to Let Students Check Out Drones

The University of South Florida purchased two unmanned aerial vehicles coeds can borrow.
Jun 23, 2014·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Clearly, checking out books from the campus library is so last year. This fall students at the University of South Florida will be able to borrow a controversial piece of technology that’s better known for its military uses than for academic learning: drones.

Last year the university received a grant to turn part of the library into a digital learning lab. It’s a move that other schools are making to ensure the hottest technology is available for student studies and research. After everything was updated, the school had a bit of leftover cash, so library officials took the plunge and shelled out a total of $3,000—$1,500 each—for two drones. Administrators at the Tampa-based school believe it’s the first university to make such a purchase.

Plenty of nonmilitary uses for drones are popping up—from walking dogs to counting birds as part of conservation efforts. The possibilities for innovative, student-designed uses are many. That said, it’s tough to not imagine all the ways having drones flying around on campus could go wrong. Students using the remote-controlled aerial devices to spy on sorority houses or surreptitiously videotaping a campus crush are just two of the creepy ways drones could be employed.

However, according to the university’s rules, any student who wants to borrow a drone must take a training course. The student must also explain the academic project it would be used for and must be accompanied by a faculty member while operating the drone.

“It’s going to take some thinking, and I think you’re going to have to have a pretty good justification and outline exactly why you need it and what you’re going to do with it,” the university’s assistant director for instructional services, Maryellen Allen, told WTSP.

“We have a global sustainability program, and they are mapping out the campus to see energy usage, so they can use the drones to help map out the campus. There are a lot of opportunities for research and learning by using drones,” the dean of the library, Bill Garrison, told CNN. “And the faculty can use it too.”

Even if a student has a sound academic project, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to have drones buzzing around. The University of South Florida says any student who breaks a drone while using it will have to pony up the replacement cost. However, the school hasn’t publicly specified what the borrower’s liability would be if the drone malfunctions and crashes, injuring or killing someone. The U.S. military, which is well-trained in drone operation, has crashed more than 400 of the machines over the past 13 years. Concerns over safety are the cornerstone of the National Park Service’s recently announced ban on them.

As excited as school officials are about their purchase, the project is likely to draw the attention of another government entity: the Federal Aviation Administration. If the FAA doesn’t think the research is robust enough, it may require the school to obtain special permission to operate the drones—or it could put the kibosh on them altogether. In February, it ended a drone-operated beer delivery company—sorry, USF students, that project probably won’t fly with professors. Because the devices won’t be available until the fall, the school has all summer to work out the details with the agency.