Today we got our first real look into what the FAA intends to do about regulating drones in U.S. airspace — and frankly, it’s surprisingly flexible and permissive given what the agency has required of users up to now.
Put simply, drones for journalism becomes very possible and very legal under these rules. Only a few things wouldn’t be allowed, and they’re minor in the grand scheme of things.
Before we get into what’s in the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), you need to understand something: This is a proposal. These are not the final rules. Drones for commercial use are just as restricted today as they were yesterday. These rules won’t go into place for some time. If everything goes perfectly, it’ll take about a year. If there’s controversy and tens of thousands of people comment, it could be two years or more before some version of these rules go into place. So if you’re a news director or photo editor and getting your credit card out based on today’s announcement, slow your roll.
As of this writing, the actual NPRM hasn’t been released yet, but the FAA has published a fact sheet outlining it. It’s worth a read, but here are the highlights:
- These rules apply to aircraft that are 55 pounds or less. A 55-pound drone is huge; most of the ones you’ve seen doing things that set your journalistic brain spinning weigh less than 10 pounds.
- You will not have to have a pilot’s license to fly one, but you will have to take an FAA knowledge test in order to obtain an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operator’s certificate. The FAA knowledge test now administered to pilots has a ton of material that applies to flying a Cessna; That will be stripped out and you’ll only be tested on things that matter to UAS operations. That certificate will cost you around $150 to obtain.
- You have to be “vetted” by the Transportation Security Administration. What exactly will this mean: A background check? A quick check of the terrorist watch list? It’s not clear. And, given history, it’s a major potential avenue for abuse, particularly directed at journalists.
- Your journalism drone will have to be registered with the FAA; you’ll most likely get an N-number like a regular plane. For journalists, it’s an open question whether we should also label our drones MEDIA or similar, but only the N-number will be required. I believe in open and accountable journalism, so I don’t have any immediate issues with this.
- The basic operating limitations are: Day flight only, and only within line of sight of the operator. You’ll be able to use autonomous flight, but only if you can assume control of the device immediately if there’s a problem. You’ll have to stay below 500 feet, which isn’t much of an issue since many of the most popular drone platforms are hard to see above 300 feet. You’ll have to give way to any aircraft in the area immediately; that makes sense, given that pilots in manned aircraft have a really hard time seeing these drones.
- More difficult operating limitations: You cannot fly over someone who is not directly involved in the operation. That means you’re not going to be flying over crowds at protests. It’s a massive safety issue. Imagine flying over a protest in Ferguson: What if your battery dies suddenly? You crash, you hurt someone (or worse). Or what if someone throws something at your drone and brings it down. You crash, you hurt someone. The solution? Rope off an area to the side of the crowd and stay inside it. An inconvenience? Yes. Prudent and safe? Yes. But what exactly “over” means isn’t spelled out in the overview document.
- Even more difficult operating limitation: You must get permission from an air traffic control facility in Class B, C, D, and E airspace. That’s pretty much anywhere over any city. Go here and look at your location. Are you in a circle? You’re in restricted airspace and will have to contact ATC before your drone flies. How, though? Will we be required to carry radios and be in contact all the time? Or will a phone call suffice? It’s unclear. Currently, for modelers or people operating with specific permission from the FAA, you can just call. But it’s a safe bet that the busier the airspace, the greater the rules. This is an issue worth watching; it ratchets up the requirements and expense of operating a commercial UAV.
- But, other than some other smaller issues, that’s it. Those are the big restrictions. No pilot’s license, which is currently a requirement to get FAA permission to use drones commercially (called a Section 333 permit). You won’t be required to have a medical examination by an FAA certified doctor (called a Class 2 medical), also currently required if you’re asking for any kind of permission from the FAA. You don’t have to have an airworthiness certificate, which for manned aircraft can take 3 to 5 years to obtain. FAA administrator Michael Huerta admitted that was unworkable in a press conference Sunday morning. So it’s been replaced with requiring operators to make sure their gear is in working order — which you’d do already, if you’re smart.
I’ll be honest: This is the most hopeful I’ve been about the prospects for drone journalism in quite some time. There’s very little you couldn’t do journalism-wise within these rules. Sure, you couldn’t have robotic reporters automatically flying to car accidents or house fires without anyone at the controls. Darn. But beyond the sci-fi, most of what we’ve envisioned is doable. Mapping disasters? So long as you’ve got ATC clearance, it’s possible. Imaging structures in 3D? Totally possible. Covering protests? With the caveat that you can’t fly over people, very possible. Sporting events are trouble, but issues like broadcast rights were going to stop that for major sports anyway. The vast majority of envisioned news purposes are all possible within this framework.
Under this regulatory framework, every newsroom will have drones and people certified to fly them. They’ll just be part of the equipment. That’s still years away yet, but you can see it clearly if these are going to be the rules.
At some point, the FAA is going to open this to public comment. Journalists and journalism organizations should take part in that process. We should advocate for being able to use them. Things we should specifically guard against:
- In Ferguson, the FAA blocked access to the skies because they wanted to keep news helicopters out. Airspace safety is important. But blocking reporters’ access because someone doesn’t like the story isn’t safety. There needs to be an appeal process for opening the skies over events.
- There absolutely should not be any media exemptions in these rules. A free press is not free when the government gets to decide who is media and who is not. The skies are for everyone, and the rules should be for everyone, media and non-media alike. And these days, who exactly is non-media?
- Since journalism is mostly about people, we should advocate for specific rules when it comes to flying over people outside of the operation. In the U.K. and other countries with rules, the buffer area is spelled out — and it can be quite wide. Journalists will want clarity when it comes to operating near an Occupy protest or over a marathon or some other event that draws a crowd. I think we can all agree that we don’t want to hurt people, but having specific rules in place that gives us guidance to what we can and can’t do is important.
Now, for journalists, the battle begins to shift to statehouses. Many states, in the vacuum left by the FAA, have been passing their own drone rules. Some of them are actively hostile to the First Amendment and journalism. Texas, for instance, makes it a misdemeanor crime to photograph property without permission of the property holder — unless you’re one of 19 exemptions. Not exempted? Journalists. Take a photo of the Dallas skyline with a drone without permission from every visible property owner and face criminal charges. Other states are considering private-property restrictions, ag-gag extensions, and other restrictions hostile to the First Amendment. Journalists need to pay attention if they want to use a drone as a reporting tool.
Photo of drone flying above Preston, England, by John Mills
used under a Creative Commons license.