In 60 days, drone journalism will be legally possible in any newsroom in the United States. That’s not to say it will be easy, but it will be legally possible in ways that it has never been before.
Today, the FAA released Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, which encompasses the new rules covering Unmanned Aerial Systems (or drones or flying robots or whatever you want to call them). You can read all 600-plus pages of it here, or you can opt for the summary here.
For journalists, this breaks down into three categories: who, what, and where.
Under Part 107, you’ll have to be 16 years old, understand English and, most importantly, you have to have a Part 107 operators certificate. What does it take to get one? You have to take a knowledge test “that includes knowledge of airspace, airspace operating requirements, and the use of aeronautical charts,” among other things. Generally, the FAA’s tests are 40 questions, multiple choice, and you have to get a 70 percent to pass.
Because I’m a college professor I have to say this: The test is not hard if you study. Really study. Learn what you need to learn. I missed one question on my knowledge test and I was angry that I missed it. Anyone committed to learning the material can pass the test. And you can take it again. But: The manned aircraft test costs $150 to take. I couldn’t find a cost anywhere, but I would assume it will be the same. Retaking gets expensive fast.
How do you get ATC permission? That’s not clear yet, and it is being worked out. However, one nice change is that if you’re near a small airport without a tower (Class G airspace) you do not need permission, mostly because most Class G airports don’t have a tower.
Under these rules, just about any story that isn’t breaking news can use drones without a ton of effort (provided you already have a licensed operator). Breaking news coverage in cities with drones will require some work. It will require newsrooms to meet with and discuss what they want with the local air traffic control facility in advance.
In some places, operators have been able to get agreements from ATC where so long as the operator stays below an even lower altitude and operates under a set of heavier restrictions, then ATC gives them blanket permission to operate. Letters of agreement, as they’re called, are possible. Requiring pilots to have radios and be in contact with ATC is possible but not likely, because air traffic radio is busy already with manned aircraft.
Or this might just end up as a web form at the airport’s website, as is the case in Tampa and Phoenix. The fact is, we just don’t know how permission in controlled airspace will happen, and it will require local efforts to work through it.
I’ve touched on this, but it bears repeating. Flight in Class B, C, D, and E airspace will require permission from ATC. What does that mean? We’ll, those airspace designations will be on the test, but the simplest thing to do if you are in the United States is to go here. Do you see all those circles? Those are airports with restricted airspace around them. If the circle is a fuzzy purple, then you don’t need permission — you just have to be smart and avoid the airport. Or, take a look at the airspace around Lincoln, Nebraska. A large chunk of the city is in Class C airspace, which is common around the U.S. Only the largest airports are Class B airspace (think Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Newark, etc). Inside of five miles from the airport in Lincoln, which includes my office, I’ll need to get permission. Anywhere around here, outside of those five miles, I’m free to operate without ATC clearance.
So the day we’ve been waiting for is here. The news is reasonably good. There are still challenges, and we haven’t even talked about state and local laws that have been piling up while the FAA lumbered toward today. But the future of drones in journalism is much brighter today than it has ever been.