Joseph Pack/Mustang News

Jacob Lauing
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Never has one word instilled so much fear in some, and so much excitement in others. At Mustang News, we fall into the latter group.

When our digital adviser walked into the newsroom one day with what’s essentially an iPhone-compatible, remote control helicopter-like flying camera, I think we could all see its potential.

Drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), to use their official name — mark the latest trend in journalism. Besides the obvious, ‘let’s use it for super cool aerial shots,’ drones have been used to capture what humans often can’t — natural disasters, protests (see CNN’s Ferguson coverage) and plenty of other news events too dangerous for reporters to document.

But with such a big tool comes big regulations and, of course, risk.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its much-anticipated commercial UAV regulations proposal last week, and while it’s a step in the right direction for journalists, it’s not enough.

There’s been plenty of debate and bureaucratic buzz surrounding drones, so I’ll try to keep things as simple as possible.

The rules

If you want to take pictures of your backyard, you’re considered a hobbyist and are bound by separate, less-restrictive FAA regulation. But if you’re using drones for commercial purposes (newsgathering, real estate, etc.), the rules were muddy and pretty overbearing until last week.

Here are the main points of the proposal, which is under a 60-day comment period:

  1. Don’t fly drones at night.
  2. Don’t fly them over people who aren’t involved in the operation.
  3. Don’t fly them above 500 feet.
  4. Don’t fly within five miles of an airport.
  5. Always maintain a line of sight with the drone.

Compared to the rules already in place, these are pretty lenient.

Consider this memo the California State University system sent out in November. “The use of any drone must be preceded by an application for and grant of a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA,” the memo read. “THERE IS NO EDUCATION OR RESEARCH EXEMPTION.  Violation of this may result in civil and criminal penalties.”

Under the FAA’s new regulations, we wouldn’t have to obtain a COA or a pilot’s license, as some enthusiasts feared. Drone operators would only have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test (renew it every 24 months) and be vetted by the TSA.

The process doesn’t seem like much of a hassle, considering the amount of potential drones have for newsgathering.

The problem

Still, there are two glaring weakness with the FAA’s proposed regulations.

First, the “don’t fly over people” rule kills any hope of things like overhead shots of Baggett Stadium and aerial video of Farmer’s Market or greek recruitment.

Yes, there are risks, like when a drunk government employee crashed his drone on White House grounds, or TGI Friday’s decided to use drones to carry mistletoes on Christmas (I promise those are both real things).

The FAA doesn’t want a lawsuit on its hands, but there has to be some compromise with journalists.

The film and agriculture industries have already been granted exemptions to the strict commercial drone rules. The agricultural implications make sense. But films? I’d say consuming news is more of a public need than watching movies, so if Hollywood gets drone privileges, so should journalists.

In fact, a group of 10 news outlets — including the New York Times, Associated Press and NBC — struck a deal with the FAA last month, testing drones for newsgathering in hopes of broader commercial regulations, particularly when it comes to breaking news events like Ferguson.

I applaud those news organizations. But the FAA will likely only cut bargains with the most respected publications, which leads me to the second problem.

As the CSU memo alluded to, there is no exemption for education.

The proposal 

Sure, every journalism student at Cal Poly and every Mustang News staff member could take the “aeronautical knowledge” test proposed by the FAA, but that seems inefficient.

There needs to be some education classification in the new FAA rules. Why not add another operator classification called “educator”?

Our advisors, journalism professors and even our editors could undergo a more rigorous test with the FAA and TSA, one that would allow them to teach drone journalism safely. The certification process could be specific to newsgathering, including ways to avoid crashes in crowds and do our jobs without causing harm.

At Mustang News, we are reporters, innovators and storytellers, yes.

But first and foremost, we are students.

We are the future generation of reporters, and we should be educated in every tool at our disposal.

There’s clearly no one blanket set of regulations that applies to all drone users. There needs to be specific regulations for each industry, with both professional and student journalists making up new categories.

So I’ll kindly ask the FAA, CSU or any other governing body limiting our ability to report the news: Let us fly our drones.

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