logoFAAIt will months, maybe years, before journalists can legally fly unmanned drone aircraft to capture video and photos.  But Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took another step toward issuing new rules that allow for legal commercial drone use.

The FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation propose that drone operators will not have to hold a pilot's license. That was a suggestion by some who wanted drone operators to understand air safety as well as an airplane pilot. There may be different licenses for people flying aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds.

The proposed new rule would require unmanned aircraft operators to register their aircraft with the FAA, obtain an “unmanned operator certificate” and also have to undergo a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) background check. The FAA said the certificates would be "widely available at local testing centers" and would have to be renewed every two years. Licensed aircraft pilots would still need to have certificates to fly drones.

The proposed rule also requires drone operators fly their aircraft below 500 feet.

The FAA and the Department of Transportation said it is considering additional less stringent rules for small aircraft weighing less than 4.4 pounds.

The government release said:

Under the proposed rule, the person actually flying a small UAS would be an “operator.” An operator would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. To maintain certification, the operator would have to pass the FAA knowledge tests every 24 months. A small UAS operator would not need any further private pilot certifications (i.e., a private pilot license or medical rating).

The new rule also proposes operating limitations designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground:

  • A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.
  • The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
  • A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.
  • A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
  • Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
  • Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

The public has 60 days to comment on the proposed rules. Here are the FAA's proposed points.

Mickey H. Osterreicher, legal counsel for the National Press Photographers Association said, "We are really pleased that they approached this in a much more common sense and less burdensome way than we were afraid they were going to." He added, "These are rules that people will want to abide by and follow. We were worried they would require a pilot's license and medical exam."

Osterreicher said he is not worried about the requirement that photographers would need a certificate to fly a drone. "I don't think anybody has a problem with a photographer having to have a driver's license to drive a car to an assignment," he said. "I think these drones will be invaluable. It is just another tool for us, but an important one to tell stories. When you get to higher ground to get a better perspective, it is valuable to photography."

Matthew Waite, the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, told Poynter.org by email:

"Other than a few twists and turns aside, the rules outlined today seem shockingly sensible," Waite said. "Not requiring a manned aircraft license, not requiring airworthiness certificates, it all seems much better than I expected it to be for journalists wanting to use drones in the near future. We still have to wait 12-24 months for these to become final rules, but I’m more hopeful today than I have been in months. There’s some issues that I have some questions about — operating in restricted airspace requires Air Traffic Control contact, for instance. What does that mean? Radio? A phone call? It makes a huge difference. But this is better than I think any of us were expecting given how the agency has dealt with UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) up to this point."

Matt Waite flies a Parrot AR Drone in front of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications in February 2012. The college’s Drone Journalism Lab was established in November 2011 to study how journalists might use small unmanned aerial vehicles to report news.   (Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Matt Waite flies a Parrot AR Drone in front of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications in February 2012. The college’s Drone Journalism Lab was established in November 2011 to study how journalists might use small unmanned aerial vehicles to report news.
(Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

But Waite says the licensing of drone operation could cause troubles:

"The guy who crashed his drone on the White House lawn tells you that there’s a security issue here...you have to expect people to push background checks and security clearances. But I can see all kinds of room for abuse here. History is loaded with examples of journalists getting extra attention from government security services, and that makes me nervous."

This is just part of the ten-year journey the FAA has taken to draft rules that would allow everyone from journalists to police, oil platforms and movie companies to use drone photography while keeping the skies safe for manned aircraft and the public below. The rules that would require line-of-sight flying would be a troublesome for companies dreaming of using drones to deliver packages.

Journalists may think of drones as a great way to get photos and videos without hiring a helicopter, but the implications of this rule go far beyond journalism. The AP summarized the FAA's economic analysis of the business at hand:

It notes that between 2004 and 2012, there were 95 fatalities involving climbers working on cell and other towers.

If the rules would prevent only one fatality by using a small drone instead of a tower climber, the $9.2 million saved — the amount the government says is the economic value of a single life — would exceed the entire cost of the regulations to society, according to the document.

The analysis does not offer a total estimate on the annual economic benefit of regulations, but says it would exceed $100 million a year. For example, about 45,000 annual bridge inspections could be conducted with small drones. Most bridge inspections currently employ hydraulic mobile cranes called "snoopers." The average cost of an inspection using a snooper is $3,250. Cable bridge inspections are even more expensive because they often require a 200-foot aerial lift.

Where do journalists stand now?

Until any new rule is enacted, journalists' drones are grounded unless you get specific permission to fly. That permission, so far, has been hard to get and when the government does grant permission it is loaded with rules. For example, an Arizona realtor got an exemption and it included 33 specific FAA requirements. The drone pilot must have a pilot's license, the airspeed is limited to 30 knots (34 mph) must fly within sight of the operator and not fly higher than 300 feet.

"Bear in mind. This is step one of day one of the process," said Waite. "These rules will not become final for at least — in the greatest of all possible worlds where we all win Powerball simultaneously — 12 months and possibly more than two years if all goes terribly wrong. If you’re a news director or a photo editor or a freelancer, don’t go buying a drone today thinking you’ll get to use it legally tomorrow."

From FAA.gov
The current unmanned aircraft rules remain in place until the FAA implements a final new rule. The FAA encourages new operators to visit: