With interest growing in using unmanned aerial vehicles by news organizations, patience will have to prevail since the Federal Aviation Administration has not issued a proposed rulemaking, and once it does it will take one to two years before final regulations are put in place.
Television broadcasters may be eager to go airborne with newsgathering drones, but they will likely have to wait a couple of years before the Federal Aviation Administration puts in place the rules under which they can operate.
That was the sobering news from Joel Roberson, an attorney with Holland & Knight, a law firm with offices in 20 cities that represents media clients, including the National Press Photographers Association, during the “Drones & Newsgathering” panel at the NewsTechForum in New York City today.
Congress told the FAA in 2012 to integrate unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which are commonly called drones, into the national airspace, and set up deadlines for the agency to meet, said Roberson, who made clear he was not speaking for the association.
The law directed the FAA to create a strategic plan pertaining to drones by Sept. 30, 2015, and to develop a final rulemaking on the use of UAS vehicles weighing less than 55 pounds — the type broadcasters most likely will use — by August of 2014, he said.
To date, the FAA has not issued a proposed rulemaking, and once it does it will take one to two years before a final rulemaking is put in place, he added.
The panel, moderated by TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, also included Andy Bocking, a BBC technology controller, licensed pilot and model aircraft enthusiast, and Greg Agvent, CNN senior director of planning and logistics.
“I am not an apologist for the FAA; however, you have to understand the FAA is all about safety — from one inch above the ground to whatever in the national airspace,” said Agvent, a 20-year field producer.
“They are going to design their policies around their perceptions of safety,” he added.
CNN has chosen not to sit idly by waiting for the rulemaking, however. The news network has partnered with the Georgia Tech Research Institute, which allows CNN to look at the opportunities for aerial filming and more.
“It’s beyond video,” he said. “You can hang all sorts of sensors off a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], and you can turn that into Big Data.”
CNN will one day be able to use that data to engage with its audience.
“We want to be able to put a moisture content or radiation or some other sensor on there that allows us to gather data and turn that into another piece of the puzzle that will help our viewers and users understand [a story],” he said.
Drones are used in the U.K. by BBC, but never as the “first camera on the scene,” said Bocking. Rather, they are used to prepare for reports.
For instance, BBC deployed a drone to take aerial footage in anticipation of the weather that caused extensive flooding, he said.
Bocking, who was head of flight operations for the London Olympics, said the current rules in England bar operators from fly UAS vehicles over people. In London, he added, they are even more stringent, not allowing a UAS within 50 meters of structures, vehicles or people.
Pressure exists in the U.K. to ease some aspects of the government’s regulations, but caution must be taken, he said. “We have to be very careful about how hard we want to push the law,” adding that UAS users are concerned an aggressive push might result in a restrictive backlash from the government.
In the United States, an FAA regulatory framework exists regarding the use of remote-control model airplanes, explained Roberson.
Those rules, dating back to a 1981 FAA policy statement, specify that model aircraft cannot be flown above 400 feet, must stay a specified distance away from airports and can only be flown line of sight.
In the absence of an FAA drone rulemaking those rules have been extended to encompass commercial use of UAS vehicles, he said.
While it is possible to apply for an exemption to this rule — so far 12 out of 167 requests have been granted — the average 120-day period needed to process an application makes going that route impractical for news, Roberson said. The exemptions also come with restrictions that severly limit their utility for news, he said.
During the panel session, Jessell inquired about an apparent loophole that appears to make it possible for television stations to acquire and air drone footage without running afoul of the rules.
Jessell asked: If a noncommercial third party shoots footage from a drone and makes it available to a station, would not that station steer clear of a violation?
Television stations do so at their own peril, Roberson said. The FAA may come down hard on a station attempting the maneuver, but that is not certain, he added.
Jessell said that news media may be encouraging hobbyists and freelancers to shoot news video with drones outside the rules by creating a market for it.
“We have [used third-party, noncommercial aerial footage] in the past and will in the future purchase video,” said Agvent.
In his panel wrap-up, Jessell advised the broadcasters in the audience to create a policy on what to do with drone footage shot by third parties before it ever comes through the station doors and to get involved in the ongoing legislative and FAA rulemaking process on UAS vehicles to protect their own interests.
Michael Depp, editor of NetNewsCheck, contributed reporting.
To listen to a recording of this panel session, click here.
To read more stories from the 2014 NewsTECHForum, click here.