While hobbyists can build or buy their own drones and use them, journalists are prohibited from using the technology until at least 2015.
Drones may have once been marketed to the public as a technological tool that farmers, law enforcement officials and journalists would be able to use in order to aid them in their profession. But on Monday the Federal Aviation Administration announced that journalists, at least for now, are not allowed to use the unmanned aircrafts for any reason.
The FAA’s announcement came after photojournalist Jesse Tinsley at the Spokesman-Review released video footage of a local “Polar Bear Plunge,”in which residents jumped into a hole in the frozen lake, on Jan. 1, which he captured with a drone. After the video made its way onto social media sites such as Twitter, some journalists such as Frank Bi from the PBS NewsHour program asked if a journalist’s use of a drone was legal.
Tinsley, who recorded the video from 30 feet off the ground, said his use of a drone was “not illegal but currently in a gray area,” which prompted the Poynter Institute to conduct its own investigation into the issue.
When Poynter asked FAA spokesman Les Dorr about the legality of drone use by journalists, Dorr said there is no gray area, since any commercial use of drones, including journalism, is not allowed.
So while hobbyists can build or buy their own drones and use them, journalists are — at least in the interim — prohibited from using the technology until at least 2015 when the FAA will open U.S. skies to commercial use of drones.
“It’s an attractive technology for journalists, and people would like to be able to use it,” Dorr said. “That said, the FAA is responsible for the safety of the air space. And as much as we’d like to encourage them, we can’t let them do it as long as there are no rules in place.”
Door reportedly acknowledged the confusion regarding who can and can’t use drones and said the FAA would soon be releasing guidelines that should make it “much clearer … what you can do and what you can’t do.”
Since Door says the FAA’s main goal is to stop illegal drone use, the FAA generally will initially contact those who are illegally using the equipment and ask them to stop, rather than out-right penalizing them.
However, some legal experts have begun to question the FAA’s role in regulating drone use, saying that although the FAA has control in regulating national airspace, the federal agency really doesn’t have any authority related to the use of commercial drones operating below 400 feet and away from airports.
If and when journalists are allowed to use drones for reporting and news-gathering purposes, Poynter says journalists will still have to pay attention to the rules, since there will likely be limits on the types of drones journalists can use, along with how long the drones can fly, the cameras drones can be equipped with, the types of stories that can be reported on with the help of a drone, and more.
All of the rules surrounding journalists use of drones is why some journalism professors at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. have created “drone labs,” where journalism students can learn how to properly fit a drone with a camera and report a story with the help of the technology.
FAA’s journalism-drone use crackdown
While Tinsley’s story has largely flown under the radar, it’s not the first time a journalist has been told they cannot use a drone. Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab program, told the San Francisco Chronicle he thought his lab was flying under hobbyist rules “because we weren’t doing any research and development into drones …,” but in July, the FAA put the kibosh on the program.
Flying drones without the approval of the FAA can result in a $10,000 penalty, which is what Raphael Pirker, a video-drone photographer was charged with, while filming the University of Virginia campus on behalf of the school. Brendan Schulman, an attorney at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel and self-described drone enthusiast, is representing Pirker. He says that the limitations on drone usage are confusing, since there currently isn’t a U.S. regulation that specifically addresses who can and can’t fly drones.
“I think the FAA is viewing this technology as the same thing as an airplane, except without the pilot, and their view is we have to replace the pilot with something else,” Schulman said.
Schulman has filed a motion to dismiss the penalty against Pirker, which is pending before an administrative law judge at the National Transportation Safety Board, and has compared the federal government’s attempt to regulate commercial drone use to regulating the Internet until commercial use regulations could be implemented.
“The answer wasn’t to ban the Internet until the commercial rules were implemented,” Schulman pointed out.