Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled Thursday the FAA had no authority to fine Raphael Pirker $10,000 for flying his small fixed-wing UAV around the University of Virginia campus on Oct. 17, 2011. The university was paying Pirker for publicity video at the time.
Specifically, Geraghty wrote:
That none “of the definitions the FAA used for ‘aircraft’ are applicable to, or include a model aircraft within their respective definition.”
That Pirker’s flight was “subject only to the FAA’s requested voluntary compliance” with rules for hobbyists, which include staying below 400 feet and within line of sight of the operator.
That the policy documents the FAA relied upon for its rules were “intended for internal guidance” and “not a jurisdictional basis for asserting … enforcement authority on model aircraft operations.”
That the FAA’s policy notice setting this all up is either ”non-binding” or “an invalid attempt of legislative rulemaking” that fails to comply with rules for making federal regulations.
That “at the time of Respondent’s model aircraft operation … there was no enforceable FAA rule or FAR Regulation applicable to model aircraft or for classifying model aircraft as an UAS’s.”
So what now? I think it means a couple of things.
First, this appears to open a small crack for journalists to start more openly experimenting with using UAVs for news stories without fear that the FAA is going to come after them.
Second, it’s not going to last. Do you really think the FAA is just going to throw its hands in the air and give up? They’re going to do something. My bet is emergency regulations, which will also be litigated. And we’ll still be waiting for real regulations — basically status quo. But make no mistake, the pressure just got turned up on the FAA to come up with commercial drone rules, and soon.
But let’s talk about those experiments that just opened up. This decision is not an invitation to a free-for-all. What UAV users choose to do in the coming days will determine a lot about what the future of regulation will look like.
Put another way: Don’t do anything stupid. Bad actors make bad policy.
News organizations would be wise, in whatever window exists to fly in, to observe the voluntary restrictions that have been in place since the 1980s. Stay below 400 feet, stay miles away from airports, stay within line of sight, don’t fly over crowds of people. They’re common sense restrictions, and there’s few compelling reasons to ignore them.
And news organizations shouldn’t expect everyone to welcome this with open arms. Police in Connecticut reported a journalist flying on his own time to the FAA and complained to his employer. I wouldn’t expect local law enforcement to be up on the latest twists and turns in administrative law, so be prepared.
Also, many states have considered or passed laws restricting drone use. Most of those dealt with law enforcement use, but several states followed Texas’ lead and are considering laws that make it illegal to photograph private property without the consent of the landowner. This decision will no doubt encourage more legislators to consider laws that may conflict with free speech or free press values.
This decision is important. It begins to open up opportunities for journalists with UAVs. But how much, and for how long, remains to be seen.
The Connecticut journalist was suspended for a week from his job despite not breaking any laws.
Pay particular attention to the last quote: “Some state legislators who recently have proposed blanket legislation restricting drone photography appear to have overlooked First Amendment considerations. I am surprised that news agencies have not been more proactive about this issue, as important rights are at stake in the regulatory process.” — Brendan Schulman.
My answer: No. The reason you’re seeing cases like this popping up is because of the nature of journalism itself. Doing journalism involves being out in the public. And the end result of journalism is making what you’ve found public. That makes it really easy to spot when journalists use drones.
He also gave aerial images from the tournament, free of charge, to The Times of India, which became the first, or one of the first newspapers in the world to print UAV captured aerial photographs in their sports coverage.
They even ran his picture as part of the coverage.
How do these sites affect drone journalism? With the information released today, I don’t think it does for the most part. Here’s why I think that:
These test sites are all about figuring out how to “safely integrate UAS into the national airspace.” For the most part, that means big aircraft flying above 500 feet. “Big” in this case means larger than 55 pounds. The kinds of aircraft these test sites will deal with, at least on the surface, appear to be larger and fly higher than the vast majority of drone journalism applications. And the issues they are researching have much more to do with how unmanned and manned aircraft will co-exist in the skies.
The timing is all wrong. The FAA has said, and repeated today, that they will propose rules for small systems (meaning 55 pounds and smaller) early in 2014. Let’s call that the first quarter — sometime between January and March. The FAA said today that the first test site would be up and running in 180 days. That’s six months from now — June, more or less. So, by the nature of the timing, those two processes appear to be somewhat independent of each other. The small UAS rules are far more important for drone journalists than the big aircraft rules.
Now, given the descriptions of what will be researched at each site, I have no doubt that some of the questions that will influence how drone journalism emerges in the US will be examined at the sites. Examples:
Alaska will research the “development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation”
Nevada focuses on “UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements”
New York “plans to work on developing test and evaluation as well as verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight”
All of those could influence drone journalism … or they might just deal with UAS integration into the national airspace, and the small UAS rules in the first quarter may be something else entirely. The truth is, we don’t know. It’s not clear from the FAA today.
But if you’re a journalist, the thing to watch is that first quarter proposal of rules for small systems. Those will have far more influence on the future of drone journalism.
1. Note the limits that the operator used. Max height was 100 meters at the most. It never went very far from the starting position, which means it was within the visual line of sight of the operator at all times (at least, it appears so). About the only thing that would cause regulators concern in other countries with UAV rules would be the flying over and near crowds of people.
2. Speaking of making regulators nervous: It’s worth noting that the BBC could not do this same story in the UK. Civil Aviation Authority restrictions in the UK would bar them from flying in an urban area like this, as well as flying over and near people outside of the crew’s control. Journalists will be contending with vast gulfs between what one country allows versus another for quite some time.
Syrian rebels this week showed off a miniature drone that they claim to have brought down using frequency interference. Fighters from the Free Syrian Army told Reuters that the unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft belonged to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The reb &
Click through to the link. The “government drone” they “captured” is a DJI Phantom with a GoPro camera mounted to it. You can buy these on the internet. The operator almost certainly crashed it, which was how it was “captured.”
Calling something a “drone” in the context of war carries with it huge connotations. A $500 remote-controlled quadcopter, as great as they are, hardly qualifies as a “drone.”
Palo Alto High School starts using drones for journalism
By Daniel Wheaton
Until now, only a few colleges, freelancers and news organizations have attempted to use a drone for journalism. But there is a younger newcomer — Palo Alto High School.
On Sept. 13, four journalism students flew a DJI Phantom quadcopter over the dedication of their high school’s new football field.
Once the angle on the Go Pro camera was correct, they sent it up high, out of the range of the fireworks show and captured the unrolling of a massive flag.
Journalism teacher Paul Kandell had the idea to use drones when he saw a Parrot AR drone in a Brookstone store in an Arizona airport. Because of its reasonable price, he purchased one and took to the skies. He told the Paly Voice he enjoys “bringing Silicon Valley into my classroom, getting my students to push the envelope with new technology.”
I was asked if this was a big moment in journalism. It depends on how much UAVs end up becoming a part of journalism. That said, one of the most respected journalism institutions in the world is legally in the air doing journalism with a multirotor. That isn’t small. — Matt Waite
The GitHub repository is organized by the individual screens that applicants must fill out to get a COA. In each folder, there is a PDF of the screen itself and a Markdown file of the text of the screens plus our answers to some of the questions. We will be adding more answers as we complete them.
Unfamiliar with GitHub and Markdown? You can click on the folders and then on the files themselves and GitHub will render the Markdown files as they should appear. There’s also a link on the right where you can download the entire repository as a Zip file. There are numerous free Markdown editors out there.
Familiar with GitHub and want to help out? Pull requests are welcome. Are you in the COA process and want to add your answers? We’d love it. The more information we all have, the better.
On Sept. 1, Reforma in Mexico City used a small quadcopter to cover a protest. From the video, you can see people clustering at various points around the city, as well as walls of police, many of whom looked up to see what was buzzing overhead.
How did Reforma get into Drone Journalism? And what steps did they take to start? Luis De Uriarte, the deputy director of electronic media, explains in this 8 minute audio clip.
News outlets haven’t totally embraced drones yet due to murky FAA regulations, but when they do, I want to be ready for it. I envision a world 20 years from now where every newsroom has its own drone journalist. I hope to be one.
In the few times that the Drone Journalism Lab in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications had gone outside and flown a small multi-rotored aircraft — call it a drone, call it a UAV, call it what you will — we’d followed the rules set out for hobbyists. We flew well under 400 feet, far from people, far from airports and always within our line of sight. Our thinking was that following these rules were sensible since we weren’t a commercial entity nor had a commercial interest in what we were doing, and our research was more about the product than the vehicle.
The permit I need, called a certificate of authorization or COA, is the same one everyone from local police departments flying small UAVs to Customs and Border Patrol officials flying unarmed Predator drones all have to get. Geologists, forest managers, and yes, university professors, all have to get these permits.
There are so many unanswered questions about using drones for journalism that it hardly makes sense to stop now. So we’re applying for a COA. The people at the FAA with whom we’ve talked have been very helpful and matter-of-fact about getting one. It’ll take time and a fair amount of documentation, they’ve told us, but provided we follow the rules it should happen.
The COA process, as it stands now, is antithetical to journalism. Permits take months. You have to apply to fly in a specific location — months in advance, mind you — and your chances of getting a permit drop if you ask for a place in restricted airspace. Don’t know if you’re in restricted airspace? Chances are, if you’re reading this in a city, you are. This map will tell you. If you’re in a purple circle, you’re in restricted airspace.
So the kinds of stories we can do are going to be very limited. But we’ll still be able to experiment in ways news organizations and private entities will not.
Keep in mind, the COA process is changing and will change dramatically in the next few years. We stand to learn a great deal about future regulation by experiencing it now, when the rules are the strictest.
And, from this experience, we’ve decided to hold the first Drone Journalism Conference in Lincoln, Neb. on Oct. 24, 25 and 26. We’re bringing in experts on privacy, ethics, the law and journalism. We’re going to share what we know so others can learn and do their own research. And we’re going to do a demo … indoors.
Spiegel Online: Snapping Tina’s Wedding: Paparazzi Turn to Drones — Did the paps turn to drones? Yep. One guy. Who got arrested and shut down before he could take a photo. The shot of the famous wedding everyone ran? Came from a manned aircraft. Same as it ever was.
The Verge: Drones to scour the skies for US businesses after FAA approval — It’s a legitimately interesting story that the FAA has approved airworthiness certificates for UAVs for commercial use for the first time. However, no one seems to be noting the significance that they’re approved for use over the ocean in Alaska, far from people or busy airspace, and certainly not over “American soil” unless you call the frozen waters of the Beaufort Sea “soil.”
Scott Pham at Mizzou/KBIA recounts his experience with Missouri’s Drone Journalism program and the Missouri Legislature.
As I watched what was happening before me, I couldn’t help but feel angry. On one level, there’s the simple frustration anyone has when someone else interferes with your plans. But it’s quite another thing to get caught up in one man’s misinformed battle with the federal government.
A man named Jenk K is using a DJI Phantom to film the events going on in Taksim Square in Istanbul. The images are fascinating. Around 4:10, you’ll see the police start using water cannons to clear the square.
We’re, of course, interested in how media might use drones to capture images like these, but in places where media is controlled and images aren’t getting out, drones + the internet are a powerful tool to show the world what’s going on. And it opens up fascinating questions about how semi-autonomous flight is a necessary component to keep the protester/pilot safe.
The county commissioners say they won’t foot the bill for a crane, and they don’t think the helicopter owner’s suggestion to have someone rappel from a real chopper and snatch the miniature one off is, well, very realistic or worthwhile.