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February 11, 2014 at 3:19pm

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Drones, journalism, the FAA and the crackdown that isn’t a crackdown

By Matt Waite

Since last week when a Connecticut TV station employee tried to use a drone at a fatal accident scene and was reported to the FAA by the local police, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from reporters asking if the FAA is cracking down on drone journalism.

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. 

This is exactly what I told the AP yesterday"This is why you’re going to see journalists getting in more trouble," I told them. "As a journalist, what’s the point of going to the trouble and getting pictures if you’re not going to publish?"

The FAA, as far as I know, does not have people out scouring the internet looking for evidence of people using drones for commercial purposes so they can bust them (because if they did, they’d be writing cease and desist letters left and right). But when someone complains, they act. When a reporter calls the FAA for comment on an example of someone using a drone to do journalism, they’ve tipped the FAA off that someone is doing something they say shouldn’t be happening.

This is another place where journalists open themselves to this problem: journalists write about journalists doing journalism in trade publications. And that draws the FAA’s attention.

So while the FAA insists that it can ban commercial use of drones — and while that’s being challenged — you can expect to see more cases like the Connecticut TV videographer.

The fact is, there aren’t clear, unambiguous rules of the road for drones just yet (aside from the FAA saying No). And as long as that’s true, journalists are risking hassles like the Connecticut example. Police don’t know if there are or are not rules — they just know they don’t like drones flying near their crime scenes. So they may threaten arrest or even go ahead and put the cuffs on. They may call your employer to complain. The FAA may or may not have authority to fine users — a lawsuit will clarify that soon — but they sure seem intent on doing it anyway. 

Prediction? Someone, someday, is going to say they’re doing drone journalism on their own time with their own gear, even though they fully intend to publish it, thinking they’re being clever and getting around the rules. And someone is going to complain. And that journalist is going to get fired. The Connecticut videographer was suspended. The next person may not be so lucky.

So while I don’t see a crackdown, I do see another reason why clear rules for using UAVs for commercial purposes couldn’t come soon enough. It’s clear to so many industries that small unmanned vehicles could do a lot of useful things, but while the technology gets better every day, the rules for that technology are nowhere to be found.