FAA’s missed deadline on drone regulations puts journalists in limbo

The headline on the story written by Keith Wagstaff and posted online Oct. 1 at the website www.nbcnews.com couldn’t be any clearer: “FAA Misses Deadline for Creating Drone Regulations.”

With all the intricacies of the drone debate swirling through the media, this should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed this issue. But the news poses a serious obstacle for student journalists and media professionals who want to incorporate this new technology into modern newsgathering.

In 2012, Congress issued an edict to the Federal Aviation Administration to incorporate unmanned aircraft systems, also known by the acronym UAS, into the national airspace. The FAA had a deadline of Sept. 30, 2015 to get that done, but that deadline has flown past with no definite date to replace it.

On the day of the original FAA deadline, a coalition of 29 different organizations sent a letter to Michael Huerta, the FAA’s administrator, urging the agency “to use all available means to finalize the small UAS rules immediately without any further delays and move ahead with the nest regulatory steps on the path for integrating all UAS into the NAS (National Airspace System).”

Wagstaff noted in his story that an unnamed FAA spokesman told NBC News “our main, overriding goal is safety,” and that final rules for drone operators should be in place by “late next spring.”

In a related development, the FAA convened a four-day “UAS Registration Task Force” beginning Nov. 3 to focus on the following questions regarding the registration of drones weighing less than 55 pounds:

  • How do we make registration as easy as possible for consumers while providing accountability?
  • What products should we exclude from registration based on weight, speed, altitude and flying time?
  • What information should we collect during the registration process, and what should we do with the data?
  • Should every unmanned aircraft sold have its own serial number, or another way to tie particular aircraft to a particular user?
  • Should the process include a formal education component before an aircraft can be registered?
  • Should registration be retroactive and apply to unmanned aircraft that are now in the system?
  • Should there be an age requirement for registration?

In his opening statement to the task force members, Huerta noted that “we’re working on a tight timetable – Secretary Fox (U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox) has set a deadline of Nov. 20 for the task force to complete its recommendations. This reflects the urgency of the task at hand.”

Meanwhile, some institutions of higher learning are doing their best to educate student journalists and other media professionals about the regulatory dos and don’ts regarding drones.

In a memo distributed Oct. 30, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s interim vice chancellor for research, Jim Garvey, addressed the topic of “Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” In the memo, Garvey wrote that “the use of any Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs), often called drones, by public entities such as SIUC is strictly prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) without the proper FAA approvals.” That means that employees and students of the university can’t operate drones on SIU Carbondale property, nor can they fly them “while serving as a representative of SIUC off campus.”

Garvey noted that drones will still be allowed to operate on campus “in indoor spaces under some circumstances. However, this will require coordination with University Risk Management.” He added that the university “will pursue the appropriate approvals with the FAA as quickly as possible and develop a process by which SIUC students and employees may use UASs with the proper training and within the compliance metrics set by the university to meet FAA rules. We anticipate that this process will be in place by spring 2016.”

At the University of Missouri, a story written by Scott Pham and posted online Aug. 21 noted that the Missouri Drone Journalism Program would be spending the fall semester “researching and applying for a COA” (certificate of authorization) after receiving a letter from the FAA ordering the program to cease all outdoor flight until it obtained one.

As Pham noted, “We intend to apply for a COA and we have no reason to think we will be denied. But it will significantly change the way we act as a program.”

At Rend Lake College, a two-year institution located in Ina, Illinois, that is part of the Illinois Community College System, plans are in place to offer courses that will help students obtain a UAS operators certificate.

In a press release issued Oct. 27 by the college (www.rlc.edu/pressroom/all-news-articles/5786-unmanned-aircraft-systems-certificate-coming-spring-2016), UAS instructor Chris Edwards said that the certificate program “should give students who pass the exam the ability to work with the UAS in the national airspace for profit.”

The release notes that “to become a certified UAS instructor, students must pass a criminal background check, be 17 years of age, pass an aeronautical knowledge test, and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.”

“This is going to be the next big thing in technology,” Edwards said. “The possibilities are almost endless. I see this becoming a field with high growth potential.”

Information found on the website of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (www.auvsi.org) agrees with Edwards. It notes that the drone industry could lead to the creation of 100,000 jobs by the year 2025, with an estimated economic impact of $82 billion.

But that economic impact is not what concerns the FAA bigwigs. In his Nov. 3 remarks to the FAA task force members, Huerta noted that “by some estimates, 700,000 new aircraft could be in the homes of consumers by the end of the year. This means unmanned aircraft could soon far outnumber manned aircraft operating in our nation’s airspace. … Integrating unmanned aircraft into our nation’s airspace is a big job, and it’s one the FAA is determined to get right.”

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