Red tape snarls drone deployment for journalists

At first blush, journalists using drones to gather information for high-risk or investigative news stories sounds like a good idea.

After all, such unmanned aircraft systems can be sent into dangerous (or geographically challenging) news situations where life and limb might be at risk. An added bonus is that drones are much cheaper to operate than either an airplane or a helicopter, both of which require a pilot, fuel, insurance, regular maintenance and hangar space.

So what’s holding back this new era of journalism? Red tape, in the form of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, as well as state legislatures and local municipalities weighing in on the subject of operating drones in U.S. airspace.

In February 2015, the FAA unveiled a set of proposed rules that classified unmanned aircraft systems as devices weighing more than 0.55 pounds but less than 55 pounds. These same rules restrict the operation of drones to a maximum height of 500 feet off the ground, at a speed of less than 100 mph.

“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate, and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx at the time.

In December, the FAA began requiring operators of unregistered drones to register their devices. Information on its website noted that “effective Dec. 21, 2015, anyone who owns a small unmanned aircraft of a certain weight must register with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) registry before they fly outdoors.”

The deadline for these owners to bring their unregistered drones into compliance with the FAA (and pay the $5 registration fee) was Feb. 19. The Hill’s Keith Laing, in a story posted online Feb. 22, reported that 368,472 drones were registered by midnight Feb. 19, “surpassing the number of airplanes that are on record with the federal government.” Laing’s story can be found online at

Penalties for flying unregistered drones are steep. The agency’s website notes that “failure to register an aircraft may result in regulatory and criminal sanctions. The FAA may assess civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.”

But just getting the FAA’s approval may not be enough. Cecilia Kang, a technology regulation reporter for the New York Times, posted a story online Dec. 27 that noted how the FAA’s new regulations are conflicting with even tougher drone laws that have been passed in more than 20 states so far. Kang’s story noted that many of the state-level regulations have placed “tough restrictions on areas to fly and (are) clamping down on the use of drones to snoop on neighbors.” In addition, city councils across the country, including those in the major metropolitan areas of Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, have approved their own drone laws. Kang’s story can be found online at

In a post from Jan. 24 on the New York Times’ technology blog “Bits,” Kang also provided additional insight on the tug-of-war raging on Capitol Hill to sway lawmakers as legislation wends its way through the halls of Congress. Kang wrote that “lobbyists have scrambled for meetings with officials at the FAA, the White House and a division of NASA that is proposing a drone traffic management system.” Kang’s blog post can be found online at

The main problem is that the features making drone usage so attractive to journalists are precisely the ones raising red flags with lawmakers and their constituents.

In an editorial posted online Jan. 9, the editorial board of the New York Times highlighted the American public’s wish for easy-to-understand rules while also adding that “policy makers should not make it so difficult to use drones that they end up limiting the First Amendment rights of filmmakers, activists and journalists.” The editorial, titled “Drone Regulations Should Focus on Safety and Privacy,” noted the double-edged aspect of drone usage this way: “These machines can obviously be put to good use – say, inspecting cellphone towers, shooting movies or compiling multidimensional real estate portfolios. They can also be used to snoop on people and harass them. And they can threaten other aircraft.” The editorial can be found online at

Despite the legislative hurdles and privacy concerns, there have been some inroads into drone usage by news organizations. Laing noted in a Dec. 14 story for The Hill that CNN has been tapped by the FAA to be a pioneer of sorts in the deployment of drones to gather information for news stories. The federal agency approved an application from CNN to operate drones “to conduct aerial photography, aerial videography, and closed-set motion picture and television filming.” Laing’s story can be found online at

A couple of final thoughts about the deployment of drones into the ranks of the media come from a story written by Benjamin Mullin, the managing editor of

Mullin’s story strikes a hopeful note that 2016 could be the year drone reporting finally takes off in this country. He wrote that “it will be a watershed development for American photojournalism writ large, one that will put relatively inexpensive aerial photography, videography and airborne sensors in play for journalists across the United States.”

On the flip side of that optimism, though, Mullin’s story details the trials and tribulations that Matt Waite has endured since founding the “Drone Journalism Lab” at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln more than three years ago. Waite, a professor of practice at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the university, received a cease-and-desist notice from the FAA soon after founding the lab, and the federal agency also shut down a similar operation at the University of Missouri. Those two drone programs, as well as others across the country, have been grounded ever since.

But Mullin noted that, in addition to CNN’s green light to use drones in its newsgathering efforts, “television stations in Cox Media Group, including Atlanta’s WSB, Boston’s WFXT and Orlando’s WFTV have also incorporated drones into their coverage, using them to report on news, weather conditions and feature stories.”

Despite the progress, Waite struck a note of ethical caution regarding drone use by journalists.

“If you wouldn’t do it on the ground, what about a drone makes you think it’s OK?” Waite asked. “And is it the manner in which we violate people’s privacy important, or the fact that it’s been done the important part?”

Mullin’s story can be found online at

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