The FAA on Feb. 15 released proposed rules covering the commercial use of small drones weighing less than 55 pounds. And while the proposed regs — covering everything from operator certification to identifying markings — are not as restrictive as media drone experts worried they might be — there are still plenty of concerns.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed rules covering commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones, have been welcomed by the news media that want to use them as aerial news gathering platforms, but not without some grumbling.
Some involved in putting drones to work for the media see certain of the proposed rules as too restrictive and worry that the process of writing the final rules will drag on too long.
“We are pleased to see that the FAA has released the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, but we continue to be concerned about the slow pace of getting news drones off the ground,” says Chuck Tobin, the Washington attorney who represents the Drone Alliance, a coalition of 14 media organizations, including Capitol Broadcasting, Gannett, NBCUniversal, Scripps, Sinclair and Univision.
“It’s going to be two or three years before we get to a final rulemaking,” Tobin says. “That has us really concerned.”
The proposed rules, released Feb. 15, address the commercial use of small drones weighing less than 55 pounds, covering everything from operator certification to identifying markings. Newsgathering is just one of many potential uses for the drones.
Under the proposed rules, drones must remain within the “visual line of sight” of an operator without the assistance of binoculars or some other visual magnifier, other than corrective lenses.
They may be flown only during daylight hours and may not be flown over anyone other than the people directly involved in their operation. The proposed rules permit a maximum speed of 100 mph and a top altitude of 500 feet.
The rules also would require an operator to be at least 17 years old, pass a test on aeronautical knowledge at a testing center approved by the FAA, undergo a background check by the Transportation Security Administration and obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating.
The notice also proposes a class of commercial micro drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds, but they are restricted to remote areas.
“This [NPRM] is a lot more flexible and provides for a lot more freedom than we had been led to believe was going to happen,” says Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “For example, requiring a pilot’s license and an airworthiness certificate would have been really big problems to overcome.”
Thomas Meyer, president of AirRobot US Inc., an Arlington, Va.-based supplier of UAS vehicles, agrees. “This is a good middle ground,” he says. “The FAA’s proposed rules do not leave it completely open. It’s not self-certification, but it’s not as demanding as the pilot qualifications to fly a helicopter.”
Taking this approach offers two advantages, he says. First, it maximizes the pool of potential UAS operators. Second, it gives the insurance industry something to work with. “Basically, it’s like a limo driver’s license and that can be the basis for insurance companies to issue coverage.”
Pete Sockett, director of engineering and operations at WRAL, the Capitol Broadcasting-owned CBS affiliate in Raleigh, N.C., says the proposed rules, particularly those related to operator certification, “might actually make sense.”
Last December, the station used a GoPro HD camera mounted on a DJI F550 drone to capture footage for a news story on the lighting of its STL tower for Christmas. Before using the drone, WRAL put in place a strict set of requirements and procedures to follow when shooting news footage.
“The steps we took were to make sure we were safe, sane and not putting anyone in jeopardy,” Sockett says. “In fact, when it came to UAS pilot qualifications, the station’s requirements more closely resembled the training needed for a private pilot’s license than the proposed operator certificate.”
However, the proposed rules include some provisions that don’t sit so well with the Drone Alliance, says Tobin. “We’d like to see a more relaxed requirement when it comes to line of sight. We want to see the FAA encourage more development of technologies like GPS and imaging from cameras to handhelds, iPads and other devices because we think those can provide means for the same level of safety while providing for broader use in a broader range.”
The line-of-sight proposed rule grows out of the FAA’s concern about drones colliding with other aircraft, Meyer says. However, the same types of technology that commercial airliners use to avoid mid-air collisions, such as radar and transponders to report location, direction and speed, could one day be available for small UAS vehicles, he adds.
“Our company has developed a proprietary micro-radar system that allows detection of any obstacles or any other aircraft in a certain radius,” Meyer says. “But it is a challenging field, not because the technology is not there, but because it is not small enough and the weight is just too great for these very small fliers.”
The proposed rules also bar night flight, but here again, the same miniaturized position detection technology may one day make it possible for the news media to operate a UAS safely at night, according to Meyer.
The toughest issue for news media is the proposed prohibition against flying drones over people who are not directly involved in their operation.
“Honestly, with an urban situation where you have lots of people, like at a protest march, flying over a densely packed group of people is exceedingly dangerous,” Waite says. However, if the rule gives reporters the latitude to cordon off an area directly under a hovering news drone to prevent the public from wandering underneath, news organizations should be able to gather news footage and maintain compliance, he adds.
“That one [the proposed rule] is going to be a limiting factor, but I think it is workable,” Waite says. “It beats the commercial ban we have now.”
Waite says the rules for the micro drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds severely limits their utility in news gathering.
“If you are within five miles of a small airport, 10 miles of a major airport or even 30 miles of a major hub, you are in regulated airspace, and that micro rule would not allow you to fly there,” he says.
“For nature photography, for stories about the Boy Scout camp out in the middle of nowhere, yeah, that would be great,” he explains. “But the number of stories that news organizations would do in Class G airspace would be pretty minimal.”
Waite urges all news media to get involve in the FAA process. “Look over what the FAA is suggesting and offer your own suggestions and criticisms. If you are a member of a journalism organization, speaking as an organization would be very wise.”
For Tobin and the Drone Alliance, the FAA rules must strike a balance between ensuring the safety of the public and permitting news organizations to fulfill their constitutionally guaranteed role of informing the public.
“Whichever way the FAA ultimately goes in regulation, it needs to be sure that the First Amendment protection to get news in public places is preserved,” he says.
Comments are due 60 days from publication of the FAA’s proposed UAS rules in the Federal Register.