By Henry H. Perritt, Jr., RTDNA Contributor
It's been more than a year now since the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) issued its final rule — “Part 107” — permitting journalists and others to fly small drones for commercial purposes. No longer must news outlets apply for section 333 exemptions or have an airplane or helicopter pilot on scene. Their personnel or their contractors can earn a “remote pilot — small unmanned aircraft certificate” from the FAA by taking an online examination, or, if the applicant is already a pilot, by completing an online course. The remote pilot is responsible for the operation, but someone else may actually fly the drone under his supervision. No “observer” is required, although best practice dictates that one person operate the drone while another operates the camera.
The news community has been cautious in the deploying the new technology, but the use of drones is growing, particularly to cover national disasters like the recent hurricanes. Reporters, news photographers, news directors, and executives are pleased with the imagery they are able to acquire by flying lower than is possible or safe with helicopters, and which can be done much more cheaply. The imagery can be captured live while the drone is flying and sent through the usual infrastructure for immediate broadcast or to be edited and stored for later use.
Some stations are using contractors, but the networks are training their own personnel, usually beginning with experienced news photographers, to obtain their remote pilot certificate. Then, they, their assignment desks, and their news directors decide whether drone imagery will enhance coverage of the story.
A set of best practices is evolving, beyond adherence to the regulatory requirements. CNN’s Greg Agvent has been particularly forceful and articulate in urging station management and news teams to work closely with local authorities. He and others report positive responses from police, firefighters, other emergency responders when they understand what a news team will be doing and that it will stay out of the way of emergency response activities. Some have been enthusiastic about doing their part to enhance effective news coverage. Drone operators generally have found FAA personnel to be cooperative when they are contacted in advance to coordinate drone operations within controlled airspace or near airports but away from the flow of manned aircraft.
Additional research and more than two years’ experience show that concern about catastrophic accidents involving drones is considerably overblown. Only two confirmed collisions between a drone and a manned aircraft have occurred, one involving an army helicopter flying low in the New York City area, and another involving an airline aircraft approaching the airport in Quebec City. In both cases the damage to the manned aircraft was minimal. The risk of mishaps like this represents a bona-fide hazard around which regulations should be molded, but commercial drone flights in compliance with Part 107 do not pose any significant safety threat. Recent engineering tests show that the kinetic energy involved in flight of small drones is not enough to cause serious injury or property damage the vast majority of situations.
The biggest threat to wider use of drone technology in newsgathering is public reaction and local politics. Poorly informed city councils and county commissions around the country are rushing to adopt ordinances that prohibit or severely limit drone flight. Most of these are preempted by federal law, as the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently found with respect to an ordinance adopted by the City of Newton, MA.
The most egregious instances of reckless drone flying have involved recreational and hobbyist flyers of drones — not commercial operators. Ironically, the political power of the model aircraft community has persuaded the Congress to deny the FAA authority to regulate recreational and hobbyist drone use, leaving the agency authority only over that portion of the aviation community, like journalism, where significant risks are least likely to originate.
The likely evolutionary directions of the FAA rules are to codify the terms of several dozen exceptions have been granted to allow night flight, to relax the ban on flying over people, and to specify the kind of communications infrastructure required for flights beyond the line of sight. CNN is the first news organization to receive a waiver permitting it to fly over people with a small drone constructed of parts that easily can detach from each other if the drone hits anything.
RTDNA continues to monitor developments in the use and regulation of drones by journalists. Has your newsroom successfully applied for waivers for flights over crowds, at night or near restricted airspace (a process that could potentially get easier)? Let us know in the comments below.