Drone journalism, the rules and the way forward
By Matt Waite
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.
Apparently, a few of those views were the Federal Aviation Administration.
In a letter dated July 10, a UAS specialist in the Kansas City office informed us that since I was an employee of a public entity, then I was required to get the same permits other public entities must get or I had to stop. The University of Missouri’s Drone Journalism Program got the same letter.
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.
Interested? You can register for the conference here. We’ll be posting more details about it soon, including speakers, a schedule and hotel information.