Five Big Developments For Drone Journalists

Journalists who want to use drones in their work got a little bit of encouragement and at least as much discouragement this week. Until now, the FAA has expressly prohibited the commercial use of drones for capturing video unless the operator is a hobbyist or unless the pilot has a permit from the FAA. Those permits, called “Section 333” permits have been rarely granted and include restrictions that are far beyond what journalists could comply with. For example, the permits issued so far to movie studios require a licensed pilot to fly the drone and require a “sterile” environment where no people, homes or businesses exist. The rules also severely limit the altitude at which the drones may fly, especially near airports.

Here are three reasons to be hopeful that in 2015, The Federal Aviation Administration will draft new guidelines that allow drones.


CNN announced this week that it has signed an agreement with the FAA to test drones. The test project may lead to new government rules on how drones can be used safely. CNN announced:

cnnCNN has partnered with the Georgia Tech Research Institute to collect data for the program. The FAA said it will analyze that information to develop rules about using drones for news gathering.

“Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high quality video journalism,” said David Vigilante, CNN’s senior vice president of legal.

“Unmanned aircraft offer news organizations significant opportunities,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We hope this agreement with CNN and the work we are doing with other news organizations and associations will help safely integrate unmanned news gathering technology and operating procedures into the National Airspace System.”


Within days of CNN’s announcement, a coalition of media companies announced they had hired a law firm and partnered with Virginia Tech to form a “drone coalition.” The group includes:

  • Advance Publications
  • A.H. Belo Corp.
  • The Associated Press
  • Gannett
  • Getty Images
  • NBCUniversal
  • The New York Times Company
  • The E.W. Scripps Company
  • Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.
  • The Washington Post

The DJI Phantom 2 drone, favored by journalists who have been testing unmanned ariel photography.The group said unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will be used in controlled “real-life” ways to test ways to use the drones safely. Unlike the CNN plan however, the coalition does not have the FAA involved in the mission. The announcement included this passage:

“The AP is excited to join with these other leading media companies in exploring the safe and responsible use of drone technology for newsgathering purposes that further our understanding of current events,” AP Director of Photography Santiago Lyon said.

Rose Mooney, Executive Director of the Virginia Tech Mid Atlantic Aviation Partnership, headquartered at the university’s Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science, said: “Virginia Tech sees this collaboration as a key to groundbreaking research to use UAS for the news and broadcasting industry on a routine basis.  UAS can provide this industry a safe, efficient, timely and affordable way to gather and disseminate information and keep journalists out of harm’s way. We are excited to be partnered with the consortium and the FAA to further UAS integration into the National Airspace System.”


The FAA may be ready to consider exceptions for smaller drones.  The Associated Press reports:

FAA officials more recently have begun talking about “risk-based” regulations, giving industry officials hope the agency might propose a blanket exemption from regulations for the smallest drones — usually defined as weighing under 5 pounds — as long as operators follow a few basic safety rules. Canadian authorities recently approved a blanket exemption for very small drones.


But there are lots of reasons to believe journalists have a long time to wait before the FAA will allow the commercial use of drones.


logoFAAThe FAA sent a note to police departments asking for their help patrolling the skies for drones. The FAA encouraged cops to video record evidence and take police reports when they see drones in the sky that could be flying against the rules.  The FAA said in it’s letter to police:

Law enforcement is in the best position to contact the
suspected operators of the aircraft, and any participants or support personnel
accompanying the operators. Our challenges in locating violators are marked in that
very few of these systems are registered in any federal database and rarely will they
have identifiable markings such as used for conventional manned aircraft.
Likewise, information on few of the UAS operators will be archived in a pilot data
base. Many operators advertise openly on the internet. However, in our
enforcement proceedings, we bear the burden of proof, and showing who actually is
operating the unmanned aircraft is critical.

The FAA’s letter to officers is coupled with a new website the FAA helped produce warning commercial drone users, including journalists that they must have permits to fly.


Even if CNN and the journalism coalition can make progress convincing the FAA that drones can be flown safely, now Congress has entered the conversation. Congress is already hearing from pilots who say they are concerned about drones flying in commercial airspace. And Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, raised what he called “deep concerns” over privacy. Rockefeller explained the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Privacy Act of 2014:

“The proposed legislation would prohibit private companies from conducting surveillance on individuals without their explicit prior consent. In addition, the draft bill directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in consultation with the Department of Transportation (DOT), to promote rules and guidelines on UAS privacy policies, including the legal obligations of model UAS operators who purchase their UAS on the retail market. The bill would be enforced by the FTC and state Attorneys General.”

The bill includes specific requirements for drone operators that are beyond any laws set for photographers who, for example, record images from helicopters. Rockefeller said the bill would:

…require civilian operators of UAS to establish a privacy policy to be posted on a public website hosted by the FTC. The policy would include, among other things, information about the circumstances under which the UAS would be operated, the specific purposes for which images, data and other identifying information would be collected, the measures to be taken to anonymize and aggregate such information unless prior express consent of the individual was obtained; and contact information for an individual to revoke their consent or to obtain copies of collected information.

A handful of schools have purchased drones to use in journalism teaching but the FAA sent them letters advising them to ground their fleet. The schools may still fly the drone inside or allow students limited unprofessional use of drones so long as the students are acting as hobbyist fliers.


Journalist John Larson demonstrates how drones can fly places that are otherwise inaccessible.