Published: Feb. 21, 2017

A quadcopter flying.Are you planning to use a drone or quad copter in your next research project? Do you know the rules?

CU Boulder’s Integrated Remote and In Situ Sensing (IRISS) does, and they can help you fly higher and further than you thought possible. Seriously, they literally have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly at elevations and in places you cannot normally go, and now have a training program available to faculty and staff.

“There's an insatiable desire to fly unmanned aerial systems on campus from CU researchers and we have started a ground school program to fill it,” says Dan Hesselius, IRISS director of flight operations.

While private drone hobbyists are not required to receive any special training, pilots flying for job or research purposes are held to a higher standard and must be licensed. Going through the traditional FAA process can cost between $300–500, but the new CU Boulder Ground School is free for employees planning work-related projects.

“We cover the rules you need to follow:  safety, airspace, weather, and crew management,” Hesselius says.

In addition, faculty and staff who successfully pass the class can take advantage of numerous special privileges not available to other pilots. IRISS researchers have been flying unmanned aircraft for research purposes for more than 15 years, and have secured waivers to certain federal regulations other operators must follow. Exemptions include:

  • Flying up to 2,500 feet in altitude across much of the Great Plains. Most pilots are limited to 400 feet.
  • Fly unmanned vehicles weighing up to 180 pounds. UAVs are typically capped at 55 pounds.
  • Legally fly on campus, which is otherwise prohibited to all pilots by university policy.

Since starting the course last year, faculty and staff from departments across campus have taken the course, including aerospace, geology, hydrology, and anthropology.

Their research goals vary widely. Some are taking high-resolution images of large areas to track movement of glaciers over time. Others are testing advanced artificial intelligence algorithms for automated flight. UAVs have even been used with high-tech ground penetrating radar systems to virtually excavate historic sites and locate artifacts without ever picking up a shovel.

The program is offered monthly during fall and spring semesters and includes two four-hour classes held one week apart.

2017 Ground School Sessions
  • Session 1:      Jan 12 and 19, 12:30pm-4:30pm
  • Session 2:      Feb 21 and 28, 12:30pm-4:30pm
  • Session 3:      Mar 23 and 30, 12:30pm-4:30pm
  • Session 4:      Apr 19 and 26, 12:30pm-4:30pm
  • Session 5:      Aug 24 and 31, 8:00am-12:00pm
  • Session 6:      Oct 16 and 23, 8:00am-12:00pm
  • Session 7:      Dec 5 and 12, 12:30-4:30pm

All students must register at least one week prior to the class.

Please direct questions and registration requests to Dan Hesselius. or visit the IRISS website.