FAA Finally Legalizes Drone Journalism

June 22, 2016

Journalism may finally be ready to stride into the brave new techno-world of drone reporting now that the Federal Aviation Administration has issued a regulation removing the previous cloud of illegality and uncertainty. It's just the beginning.

Drones — small unmanned, remotely controlled aerial vehicles with a camera and other sensors attached — have held out promise to environmental journalists for covering things like wildfires, oil spills, demonstrations, and public lands.

But previously, the FAA had held that journalism was a "commercial" use of drones, and not legal because regulations had not been issued yet. Now they have.

On June 21, 2014, the FAA issued its Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, which it summarized here. When it takes effect in 60 days, drone journalism will not be illegal.

But many restrictions apply. The rule only allows drones weighing less than 55 lbs., and the person controlling the drone must have a "visual line-of-sight" on it. Remote pilots must hold a certificate, pass a test, and be at least 16 years old.

Also, the drone can not be operated in certain restricted airspace (to avoid conflict with manned aircraft) and "may not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation." Drones can not fly above a 400-foot ceiling, in order to avoid conflict with regular aircraft. They can not be operated at night.

Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska who is a guru-evangelist of drone journalism, wrote the new rules up immediately for the Harvard's Nieman Foundation.

"There are still challenges," Waite wrote, "and we haven’t even talked about state and local laws that have been piling up while the FAA lumbered toward today. But the future of drones in journalism is much brighter today than it has ever been."

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