January 3, 2014

While the journalism community is buzzing about drones’ potential to help report hard-to-reach stories, the Federal Aviation Administration still largely bans the use of unmanned aircraft systems for commercial purposes, journalism included.

But The (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review Wednesday published a video that provided an aerial glimpse of the annual Polar Bear Plunge in Lake Coeur d’Alene, which it said was “courtesy of a radio-controlled helicopter and tiny camera.”

Former Spokesman-Review developer Mike Tigas tweeted the story, which prompted an immediate response from Frank Bi, a news developer at PBS NewsHour.

Tigas then asked Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska who specializes in drone journalism, to weigh in.

“It’s not so simple to say drones for commercial use are banned, but any news organization that uses them for news should expect a legal conflict with the FAA,” Waite, who has received a cease-and-desist letter from the FAA, said in a follow-up email.

Thursday morning, Jesse Tinsley, the Spokesman-Review photographer who took the video, explained why he thought using the drones would pass muster:

“I believe that I am well outside of any FAA concerns,” Tinsley said in a phone interview. “I try to operate outside the purview of the FAA rather than in defiance of the FAA.”

Tinsley said that he purchased his camera ship, a remote-controlled mini helicopter that can be used to take aerial photos and videos, for $500 in September. (The devices are readily available online).

While he primarily uses the ship for his own enjoyment, Tinsley, who has a pilot’s license, said he has published several of his scenic photos on The Spokesman-Review’s website.

The Polar Bear Plunge video, which was taken from just 30 feet off the ground, was uploaded to spokesman.com directly by Tinsley, and it was his first such video on the site.

Tinsley said he devised his own ethical framework for operating the craft, and takes pains to never fly over private property or above people’s heads. He also stays out of controlled air space, away from helicopters, and at 100 feet or less.

If Tinsley was acting as a private citizen, the FAA may have no issue with his drone shots. The “gray area” occurs when a news staffer has an off-the-clock drone recording published by a for-profit news venture.

“I think if we had a handful of lawyers we’d have a handful of opinions about … how my actions would affect the newspaper,” Tinsley said, adding that he will abide by any forthcoming FAA regulations about camera ship use.

Reached by phone Friday, Spokesman-Review Editor Gary Graham said the Polar Bear Plunge video will remain on the site, but it’s yet to be decided whether more such videos will be published.

After learning of the discussion surrounding the video’s origin, Graham said he spoke with Tinsley on Thursday and tasked him with researching federal regulations about unmanned camera use.

“The fact that there might be some FAA concerns has certainly gotten our attention,” Graham said, adding that “there wasn’t much discussion ahead of time” about the camera ship recordings.

But, Graham said that he’s pleased that Tinsley is experimenting with the technology and doesn’t expect blow-back from the video.

“I’d be surprised if we hear from [the FAA],” Graham said. “I don’t think we’re going to get into trouble.”

The FAA has stepped in to regulate drone journalism before. In August, it put the kibosh on two journalism programs that were attempting to teach its students how to use drones.

But it is also now testing drone use at several sites throughout the country, and is expected to issue new rules about operating small unmanned aircraft this year.

“I’m just trying to learn it and do something interesting,” Tinsley said. “Hopefully it’ll be an accepted part of what we do.”

Related: What journalists need to know about drones

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Waite received two cease-and-desist letters from the FAA. He received one. A link to The Spokesman-Review site has been fixed and the Polar Bear Plunge was incorrectly described as a race.

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