The clock is ticking on the 60-day window for public comments on the Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed rules for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—a.k.a. drones. Meanwhile, news organizations are taking a closer look at the FAA proposals as they plan out the myriad ways the technology may be used.
The public comment period on the proposed rulemaking runs until April 24, but the process of turning the proposals into actual regulations will likely run at least 18 months, and could take more than two years, experts say.
Those news organizations will have to be carefully monitoring how the FAA plans to implement those rules while paying close attention to the evolution of the technology, which will be spotlighted in about a dozen separate sessions and events at the 2015 NAB Show, April 11-16 in Las Vegas.
While some key provisions could severely restrict drone usage by TV stations, Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), called the proposals “good first steps.”
“The RTDNA is generally pleased with the FAA proposals as we read them, which is to say that they are more flexible than perhaps some had been anticipating,” Cavender adds, noting that the proposed rules require commercial drone pilots to be certified, but that they will not need to have a commercial pilot’s license. “Yes, there will be training and yes there is certification but it is not as onerous as requiring the user to be a licensed pilot.”
Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, offers a similar assessment while stressing that journalists need to be active in the process of formulating the final rules. “We are now in the 60-day window for public comment,” he says. “If you are part of any state level broadcaster association or national organization, now is the time to speak to the FAA and register your concerns and suggestions.”
Engaging with the FAA during the rulemaking process is particularly important, Waite and others say because some of the proposed rules could easily be interpreted in ways that put severe restrictions on journalists needing to abide by them.
The most notable areas of concern involve proposals that require UAV operators to keep the vehicle within their line of slight, which would limit use to about 300-500 feet from the operator, and a ban on flying drones over people not “under the control” of the operators, which would make it difficult to use them over cities to cover events such as protests.
Waite notes that the line-of-sight rules could restrict use of drones to cover tornadoes or wildfires, where they might be able to help map the extent of the damage over large areas of terrain. He hopes the rules might be modified as the technology improves for sensors, communication and radar.
Another key point of discussion with the FAA will be the use of drones over people. “If you can’t fly over a city, forget it,” Waite says. “That pretty much ends the conversation for their use by journalists.”
But he believes some of the proposed restrictions could be mitigated. ESPN, for example, got FAA approval to use a UAV to cover the Winter X Games in Aspen this year after it agreed to only use the drone in a restricted area where there were no fans or athletes.
NAVIGATING UAV RULES
Unlike previously issued rules for the use of drones by hobbyists, the FAA’s proposed rules apply to commercial use of drones weighing up to 55 pounds. Key provisions include:
Certification: An operator has to be at least 17 years old and obtain a UAS operator certificate, which must be renewed every two years by passing new tests. But they would not need to go through a much more rigorous and expensive process of getting a private pilot license.
Flight restrictions: Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude, with speeds no faster than 100 mph. The rules include a number of safety provisions, including prohibitions on flying within airport flight paths, restricted airspace or poor weather. The operators also need to be able to see the UAV with the naked eye and won’t be able to fly the drones over people that are not part of the operator’s crew or news organization.
New Flight Plans
Since the FAA has already licensed some production companies to use drones on movie and TV sets, they are being increasingly used by news organizations. CNN, for example, hired one of the FAA-approved companies to shoot background UAV footage of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., as part of its 50th anniversary coverage of the historical civil rights march.
Cavender expects more such instances, noting that the RTDNA’s lawyers have been talking to the FAA about granting additional use. “I think we have a good strong argument for some exceptions in newsgathering,” he says.
Waite and Cavender also stress that journalists have to keep close tabs on laws being passed by state legislatures, where concerns over privacy have produced policies that could severely limit First Amendment rights.
“I hope we do not end up in a place where we finally have federal rules that allow the industry to use the technology, only to see it being unduly restricted by states,” Cavender says. “We understand the concerns about privacy and the need to be thoughtful about this technology but I don’t want to see it hindered by a whole set of regulations that depend on what state you’re in.”
News organizations also need to be taking a careful look at how drone technology is developing—a subject that will be intensively covered at the 2015 NAB Show. A number of sessions will cover the subject and the exhibition space will feature an Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion with a fully enclosed "flying cage.”
“It’s essential that in the weeks and months ahead, that the industry familiarize itself with the technology,” Cavender says. “There are really so many nuances that UAVs can provide. They can really be so much more than a flying machine with a camera.”