FAA expected to allow drone journalism in the USA soon

In the USA, Prof. Matt Waite of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab, says the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seems to be ready to allow news reporters to use drones – subject to registration and records-keeping requirements. The FAA is expected to issue a new set of regulations governing the use of drones in the next few months.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | November 25, 2013

As we reported in 2011, drone journalism is the use of unmanned aircraft systems for journalistic purposes. While the military use of drones already is a subject of heated debate, there is a growing controversy over their use in newsgathering as well.

The New York Times reports that news outlets such as CNN, the Associated Press and News Corporation are experimenting with using the devices in situations where a helicopter would be too costly or disruptive.

Leslie Kaufman and Ravi Somaiya note in the article for the New York Times that drones can be used in reporting on natural disasters. Lewis Whyld, a British photographer, used drones to report on the destruction brought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Instead of taking up space on a military aid helicopter, Whyld was able to provide overhead shots of the devastation with a drone. 

Nature documentaries use them to get close shots of wildlife, BBC used a drone to take shots of a flock of two million flamingos – something that was impossible before, as a helicopter would have scared the birds and caused them to flee.

Most of the uses of drones for journalistic purposes have been highly praised, but there are privacy concerns with the technological developments, since paparazzi have also used drones to chase celebrities around Europe.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently allows only drone manufacturers and public entities, such as law enforcement, to fly drones, but they may loosen the restrictions to include news organizations in the next few years, according to New York Magazine.

The FAA released a document last week called the Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap. In it the FAA discussed what it planned to do about drones in the near future.

Professor Waite, in a recent article for The Nieman Lab via a post on the Drone Journalism Lab website predicted what this report could mean for drone journalism.

Waite summarized the main ideas of the document:

  • The FAA is aware that journalists want to use drones.
  • Journalists wishing to use drones will most likely have to record safety data and report it to the FAA.
  • There will be a public comment period for these rules. Journalism and journalism organizations who believe they may one day use a drone to report news should get involved. The FAA said it will start the process in early 2014.
  • The sUAS (the “s” refers to “small” commercial drones, weighing less than 55 pounds) rules will most likely mean drone journalists will not need certificates of authorization (COA) from the FAA.
  • But there will not be a free-for-all under new sUAS rules.
  • Journalists will likely need a license and undergo a background check to fly a drone commercially.

The report gives hints at what is coming up next for drone journalism in the USA. But many already see the potential benefits in the easy access to the sky drones give to journalists. As Fergus Pitt told the New York Times, “It is definitely in the early days, but there is so much potential when the regulations come off.”

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