The era of newsgathering drones is upon us. Since new Federal Aviation Administration rules allowing limited commercial operation of drones (also known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS) weighing 55 lbs. or less took effect a little over a month ago, media organizations have moved quickly to utilize the technology.
Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates or provides services to 173 television stations across the country, recently announced it was going “all in” on newsgathering drones. It plans to have 80 trained and certified UAS pilots working in 40 markets by the end of 2017, and already has launched UAS teams for newsgathering in Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Green Bay, WI; Columbus, OH; Little Rock, AR; and Tulsa, OK. Providing an example of the benefits drones can bring to newsgathering, Sinclair released footage taken over the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, IA, showing an aerial perspective of a newly constructed flood wall as the city braced for flooding.
Sinclair’s announcement comes on the heels of CNN’s launch of CNN Aerial Imagery and Reporting (CNN AIR), a unit with two full-time drone operators dedicated to integrating aerial imagery and reporting across CNN networks.
Broadcasters and other organizations with newsgathering operations are increasingly taking advantage of the FAA’s new “Part 107” rules, which took effect on August 29, 2016. The small drones authorized under the rules offer broadcasters and other news organizations a cost-effective way to gather aerial footage, especially as compared to the cost of using helicopters. While the Part 107 rules have paved the way for widespread use of newsgathering drones, broadcasters and other potential UAS operators should keep in mind that some requirements must be met before UAS operations can commence.
To protect the public, the Part 107 rules come with a number of operational limitations on UAS operation. However, if a party can demonstrate the ability to operate safely while deviating from a specific limitation, the FAA may grant a waiver of one or more of the specific limitations found in its rules. With regard to newsgathering operations, the most relevant limitations (and therefore good candidates for waiver requests) include the prohibitions on flights above people not participating in the UAS operation, flights beyond visual line of sight, flights above 400 feet (or more than 400 feet above a building or other structure), and nighttime flights. The FAA has added a portal to its website for waiver applications, and has recorded a standard-issue government YouTube video on the subject. For an example of a waiver that has been granted, take a look at CNN’s waiver for flights over non-participants.
In addition, the Part 107 rules require those operating small drones to either hold a “remote pilot certificate” or be under the supervision of a person who holds such a certificate. To qualify for a certificate, the applicant must be at least 16 years old, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, and pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center. The FAA offers a free online preparation course for the knowledge test. In addition to pilot certification, Part 107 requires that all drones used for commercial purposes be marked and registered. Drones can be registered through the FAA’s website.
Pillsbury launched one of the nation’s first UAS legal teams long before commercial operations were possible, and being a part of these developments has been fascinating. Because of the myriad issues UAS operations involve, Pillsbury’s UAS practice consists of an interdisciplinary team of lawyers from our Aviation, Communications, Privacy, and Transportation practices. The UAS team is led by former FAA General Counsel, Ken Quinn. It was first to secure nighttime drone operation approval of any kind, and counsels a variety of companies and organizations in UAS operational approvals, including Part 107 waivers. Those contemplating entering the world of UAS operations for newsgathering or other purposes will find the UAS team’s blog and advisories an excellent place to start.
It’s time to stop reading about drones in the news, and start reading news brought to us by drones.