COVID-19: Unmanned Aircraft

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Updates on COVID-19: Unmanned Aircraft (UA) Program

The Office for Research Protections would like to remind researchers that on-campus research is in Research Phase 3 (out of 5). Researchers should review Penn State’s phases for gradually returning to on-campus research, which were announced by the Senior Vice President for Research on May 19, 2020. Although aligned with Pennsylvania’s phases, Penn State’s Return to Research Phases are separate and distinct from the Commonwealth’s color-coded phases and are moving at a different pace. 

Research Phase 3

Unit leaders must approve all on-campus research activities within their respective units at each Research Phase. Researchers are not allowed to return to on-campus research without approval from their Unit Leader in coordination with OSVPR. Researchers should communicate with their unit leaders for unit-specific information. 

This webpage has been created to share the answers to COVID-19-related questions as pertains to the operation and oversight of unmanned aircrafts. For more information on on other research areas visit


Unmanned Aircraft Activities

Effective April 23, 2020, pilots submitting a business flight request must confirm where the activity falls under the Industry Operational Guidance if the county where they wish to fly falls under a red or yellow phase, otherwise, the flight will not be permitted at this time. Counties in a green phase will not require confirmation of where the activity falls. Additional communications will be shared as updates to these restrictions become available. University policies and procedures, (SY45), continue to apply for requests that are permitted. A UA request to fly will need to be submitted and fully processed before operations may begin. Personally-owned UAs are not permitted to be used. If you do not have access to the building where the University-owned UA resides, you will need to work with your department to request access if the mission has been deemed essential and is allowed to be conducted.

UA research activities are outlined below based on the University determined research phases. University Park is currently in Phase 3. Follow the phase guidelines for your specific campus. If traveling to other areas with a different status, local restrictions must be observed. Members of our research community who work at the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) should continue to follow ARL-specific guidelines.

Phases 1 and 2 

UA related research at all campus locations under phase 1 and 2 is limited to approved and designated essential research activities as defined by University guidance. Speak with your Dean to determine whether your work may be deemed to be essential.

Phase 3 (currently phase 3)

Lab based UA research activities may be permitted at campus locations in phase 3, as approved by the Dean of the respective college, if they meet the expanded definition of allowable research; that includes: (i) time-sensitive research and (ii) research that requires on-site access and which can be conducted with sufficient physical separation among personnel. See guidance

Campus locations in phase 3 may resume field UA research activities (outdoor operations on or off of University-property) in accordance with SY45 and EHS guidance for fieldwork. See guidance

Phase 4

In phase 4, additional on-campus, lab-based research will be allowed, as approved by unit leaders. See guidance.  


See below for answers to Frequently Asked Questions regarding UA updates related to COVID-19.

No, at this time, we are not requiring written documentation from your college for already approved flight requests being conducted for essential research purposes.

Yes. It will be the responsibility of the researcher to confirm they have authorization through their unit leaders after the Office for Research Protections (ORP) grants approval for the flight. 

Additional communications will be shared as this continues to evolve, as well as when the restriction has been lifted. Follow COVID-19 updates related to UA activities, as well as other research areas. 

This depends on the rapidly evolving circumstances. Email to inquire.

You are welcome to still submit the materials in preparation for when the restriction is lifted; however, we may not be able to advise on when you can get started until a later date. Note that approval can only be granted for a year after the date of the submission. If you submit early and the restriction is not lifted for 3 months, as an example, your authorization will only be valid for 9 months.