New Federal Regulations Raise Opportunities for Newsgathering Drone Journalism
Following the recent explosion in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, New York City police closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic nearly a square-mile of the surrounding area. 1 Apart from a single media staging area at 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue,2 crews took to the sky to cover the story from the air.
Although it’s unlikely to ground news choppers, new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations may change the way television stations gather breaking news footage for similar events in the future. Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, which took effect in August, allows commercial operators to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—more commonly known as drones. 3
“The new rules will expand the possibilities for capturing informative and engaging images,” said Anna M. Gomez,4 a partner with Wiley Rein in Washington, D.C. In her capacity, Gomez counsels clients on U.S. and international regulation governing unmanned aircraft systems, including matters before the FAA. “UAS are less expensive and safer to operate than, for example, helicopters. [They] will enable television stations in smaller markets to offer aerial coverage while also allowing stations in larger markets to supplement their current aerial capabilities.”
The Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule should afford journalists the flexibility to “improve their ability to inform the public and alert government first responders,” Gomez said. Most notably, the FAA has eliminated the requirement that only licensed aircraft pilots can fly drones (providing at least 24 hours’ notice), but the new rules are not without limitations.7 Among the restrictions, commercial drones must weigh less than fifty-five pounds. Operators must also keep the drone in their direct line of sight at all times and fly it no higher than 400-feet. Under the law, unmanned drones may only fly during daylight hours and cannot fly over people.
There are exceptions. The FAA granted CNN a waiver to fly newsgathering drones assigned to its Aerial Imagery and Reporting (CNN AIR) unit.8 The network has used drones to bring its viewers footage of the extensive flooding in Louisiana, enhance its coverage of the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and access otherwise unreachable regions of an earthquake-devastated Nepal.9
“The FAA has announced its intent to utilize a risk-based regulatory regime for drone flights, and will permit more flexible uses as it understands the safety risks and remediation for drone operations,” Gomez added. “Therefore, while the FAA gets comfortable with their use, particularly in more dense urban areas, journalists should operate drones in less risky areas to be able to prove that they can be operated safely. While perhaps not as useful for breaking news, journalists can also use drones to film pre-planned segments, provided the operator gets a waiver from the FAA to conduct closed-set filming.”