To be published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Dow Jones News Fund's Adviser Update
The use of drones to gather images and video has been a hot topic in scholastic journalism in recent years. As the cost of drones and digital cameras fell to well under $1,000 in 2013, advisers and their staffs began experimenting with flying them around their campuses, over football games, etc. As those of us who cover the field began looking into the legalities of using such unmanned aircraft systems (UAS’s), as the Federal Aviation Administration calls them, it quickly became clear that all STEM educational and journalistic uses of drones were considered illegal under current federal law. Suddenly, teachers became reticent to discuss their drone use on the JEA listserv and whatever use they were making of UAS went underground.
In 2014, the FAA promised that a new set of regulations for the use of small UAS would be forthcoming. In mid-February, a set of proposed regulations was released by the Department of Transportation (the FAA’s parent organization) that might allow some journalistic or STEM use of drones to recommence legally on school campuses. The proposal is designated as FAA-2015-0150.
The proposed regulations, while not unreasonable, will, if passed as is, make such use challenging. Some highlights of the regulations:
• Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds.
• UAS’s must have a maximum altitude of 500 feet with a maximum airspeed of 100 mph.
• The operator must remain in visual line-of-sight of the aircraft at all times.
• “First person view cameras” are permitted, but do not alleviate line of sight requirements.
• Craft can only be operated when there is minimum weather visibility of three miles from the controller.
• Craft must operate in daylight-hours only.
• UAS’s must not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.
Further, the operator of any UAS must be at least 17 years old, must pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center, be approved by the Department of Transportation, and must obtain an unmanned operator certificate with a small UAS rating (which never expires). Further, the UAS must be available for inspection by the FAA at any time, and operators must report any accident which results in injury or property damage to the FAA within ten days.
While those regulations are daunting, and the requirement that UAS’s not operate over any other people on the ground might make filming a football game nearly impossible (and filming a nighttime game would definitely be proscribed), it might be possible for a journalism program to get a 17-year-old senior licensed to operate a drone for some journalistic purposes under these regulations.
There is more hope in the promise that additional regulations might be forthcoming for what the FAA is calling micro UAS. An FAA press release on the issue stated: “The proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for ‘micro’ UAS under 4.4 pounds. The FAA is asking the public to comment on this possible classification to determine whether it should include this option as part of a final rule.”
Most four to eight prop camera drones journalism and STEM programs are experimenting with would easily fall into the micro UAS category. The DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus, a $1,300 four-prop helicopter drone with a built in digital and still video camera, weighs in at 2.7 pounds including the camera and gimbal. Better still, the proposed micro UAS option would allow operations in Class G airspace (here, referring to operation under 400 feet with clear visibility and at least five miles from any airport) over people not involved in the operation, provided the operator certifies that he or she has the requisite aeronautical knowledge to perform the operation. Such a UAS must be made of easily frangible materials like plastic that would break upon impact with the ground, lessening the danger of any injury or damage.
Such use would require a different micro UAS certification for the operator which would not require an FAA knowledge test, but which would be obtained by submitting a signed statement to the FAA stating that he or she has familiarized him or herself with all of the areas of knowledge that are tested on the initial aeronautical knowledge test. At the moment, the proposed micro UAS rules contain no exception to the requirement that operators be at least 17-years-old. But they could. The FAA is inviting comment from the public regarding these proposed rules. As of now, that comment period is defined as 60 days from the date of publication of the proposed rules. Aviation journalists whose work I have been reading indicate that that period might be extended even longer. It is crucial that the scholastic journalism community comment now on the importance of establishing more flexible micro UAS rules and of considering the educational uses of drones. Such use should include the licensing of students under 17 as micro UAS pilots, perhaps specifically in a supervised educational setting.
I will be taking to the JEA Listserv immediately to promote such comment. You can submit comments referencing to the FAA in several ways:
• Electronically: Go to http://www.regulations.gov and follow the online instructions for sending your comments electronically. Reference FAA-2015-0150. • Mail: Send comments to Docket Operations, M-30; U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE., Room W12-140, West Building Ground Floor, Washington, DC 20590-0001. • Fax: Fax comments to Docket Operations at 202-493-2251.
The FAA has opened the door for educators to have their say in setting the UAS rules we will all be living with. Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines hoping for a positive outcome. Now is the time for all scholastic journalism advisers and their students to get involved in crafting drone rules that will make the work we do even more relevant in the future.