Fiscal Fights in Congress Threaten to Ground Newsroom Plans for Drones


Commercial drones for news gathering may be grounded from takeoff, at least for a while, by fiscal dogfights and privacy concerns playing out this month in the U.S. Congress.

The Senate is currently considering funding legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would delay commercial use for at least one year. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is considering legislation that directs the FAA to make "measurable progress" toward integrating unmanned aerial vehicles — or "UAVs," as lawmakers refer to commercial drones — into U.S. airspace.

Current Law on Drones for Newsgathering

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. Both universities are in the process of applying for licenses.

The last time Congress debated the use UAVs was the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. The law requires the FAA to begin preliminary planning to integrate UAVs into the national airspace. On July 26, 2013, the FAA approved the first commercial UAV operations in U.S. airspace, for research in the Arctic.

The pending Senate FAA appropriations bill acknowledges the many benefits UAVs may have in the United States but would prohibit the use of federal funds to integrate UAVs into the national airspace until the Department of Transportation submits a report to Congress evaluating their effect on individual privacy. The privacy report is required not later than one year after enactment of the FAA appropriations bill.

Looking Ahead

The commercial market for UAVs is growing and their potential uses are endless, but the congressional debate and FAA policymaking on the commercial use of UAVs in 2014 will have a significant impact on the UAV manufacturing and user communities. The debate also will affect whether and when UAVs will become a lower-cost alternative for aerial newsgathering.

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 examine privacy and safety concerns in regulating civilian drone use. Lawmakers need to know that UAV technology isa safe, non-intrusive, lower-cost means for journalists to provide their constituents with important information that they need.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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