Inexpensive aerial newsgathering may be inching closer to takeoff in a few years, with the federal government's release this week of its first detailed plan for commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the United States.
On November 7, 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released what it calls a "roadmap" for integrating "UAVs" — the acronym lawmakers use for commercial drones — into the national air space.
The roadmap addresses the federal government's goals over the next decades for the development of policies, regulations, research and development, and certification, all geared toward the safe integration of UAVs. It outlines the establishment of six test sites, in locations to be chosen over the next few months, reflecting a diversity of climate, geography and ground infrastructure.
The roadmap does not directly address the privacy issues cited by many members of Congress as a key concern. Instead, it reports that "although the FAA’s mission does not include developing or enforcing policies pertaining to privacy or civil liberties," the test sites' operators will be required to establish privacy policies for testing at each. The roadmap states that the record of the tests performed under those policies "will help inform the dialogue among policymakers, privacy advocates, and the industry regarding broader questions concerning the use of" UAVs in national air space.
While the FAA appears to focus on safety and operations issues, and defers — at least for now — on privacy concerns, the release of the roadmap is a significant step toward opening the skies up to more journalists. Newsrooms are prohibited under current law from using UAVs for ordinary newsgathering.
The FAA will only approve UAV operations by issuing special airworthiness certificates for experimental research and development, training and flight demonstrations, or certificates of authorization or waiver for public aircraft. News operations would not qualify for approval under either form of license.
FAA guidance allows UAVs to be flown for recreational/non-business purposes as long as they are kept below 400 feet and are flown a sufficient distance from populated areas and full-scale aircraft. Recently, however, the FAA banned experimental journalism classes at the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri from operating UAVs without an FAA license.
The FAA released the roadmap pursuant to Congress's passage in 2012 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. The law requires the FAA to begin preliminary planning to integrate UAVs into the national airspace. In the aftermath, members of Congress, industry and privacy advocates have publicly weighed in on safety and privacy issues.
Relatively inexpensive UAV platforms would open up new opportunities for important journalism in regions of the country that lack the resources to cover stories best told from an aerial perspective. From reporting on traffic, coastal hurricane watches and mountain wildfires to covering crop yields, lower-cost aerial photography would help more of America's newsrooms bring more accurate and useful information to the public.
Journalism needs a seat at the table as Congress and regulators continue to examine privacy and safety concerns in regulating civilian drone use. Lawmakers need to know that UAV technology is a safe, non-intrusive, lower-cost means for journalists to provide their constituents with important information that they need.