UPDATE: The FAA said Friday it has appealed Thursday’s decision by an NTSB administrative law judge.
A federal judge dismissed a case against a man who was fined $10,000 for operating a drone “in a careless or reckless manner” in 2011. Does this mean news outlets can finally start sending cameras into the skies?
Matt Waite, the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, advises caution.
“I don’t think it’s game on,” he said in an email. “I think there’s legitimate reasons to be cautious, for reasons like safety or the fact that we don’t have a lot of experience doing this as an industry. There are unsettled areas of law still regarding private property or personal privacy that will now come into play.”
Waite, who received a cease-and-desist for operating drones without the proper permitting, also said: “And I do not expect the FAA to just throw their hands up and let it be a free-for-all. I’m betting the FAA will file for some kind of emergency regulation that will return us to the status quo. But that status quo was untenable before this ruling. This dramatically cranks up the pressure on the agency to get rules into place that balance safety and commercial use.”
Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, took a similar tack.
“I am cautiously optimistic that for the time being the threat of fines assessed by the FAA … has been ruled to be unenforceable,” he said in an email. “That is not to say that those who continue to fly these vehicles may not be liable to prosecution or civil penalties in states that have passed laws prohibiting their use.”
He also mentioned that “individual news organizations may look unfavorably upon such use by their staff even when they are operating them on their own time,” as evidenced by a recent case in Connecticut in which a photographer was suspended by the TV station where he works after flying a drone over the scene of an accident.
Pedro Rivera, who was off-duty at the time, is suing the Hartford Police Department for alerting WFSB-TV about the incident and requesting that he be disciplined.
And what of the newspaper photojournalists around the country who have dabbled with drone technology and have been waiting to incorporate it fully into their day-to-day work?
“Hopefully this is a bit of sanity against the blanket prohibition against their commercial use,” said Jesse Tinsley of The (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review, who flies drones recreationally and has published drone-taken videos and stills on his outlet’s website. “I fly and shoot photos every day the weather cooperates, but I can only hope my newspaper will feel comfortable enough to someday publish the photos.”
The legality of small drone aircrafts has been a topic of much debate. The FAA has maintained that commercial drone use is illegal, but has allowed for a hobbyist exemption under which recreational use is allowed. Drone journalism has fallen under the former category, and has essentially been banned.