News media challenge ban on journalism drones

By JOAN LOWY

(WASHINGTON, AP) — More than a dozen media organizations challenged the government’s ban on the use of drones by journalists Tuesday, saying the Federal Aviation Administration’s position violates First Amendment protections for news gathering.

The organizations, including The Associated Press, filed a brief with the National Transportation Safety Board in support of aerial photographer Raphael Pirker. Pirker was fined $10,000 by the FAA for flying a small drone near the University of Virginia to make a commercial video in October 2011. He appealed the fine to the safety board, which hears challenges to FAA decisions.

An administrative law judge ruled in March that the FAA can’t enforce its policy against all commercial use of drones when the agency hasn’t issued regulations for those uses. The FAA has appealed the judge’s decision to the full five-member safety board. Agency officials have said they hope to issue regulations for the use of small drones later this year.

The FAA won’t currently issue drone permits to news organizations. Officials have sent warning letters to journalists found to have used small unmanned aircraft — most of them no bigger than a backpack — to take photos and videos. The agency suggested to one Ohio newspaper that it refrain from publishing video of a burning building taken independently by a drone hobbyist, even though hobbyists, unlike journalists, are permitted to fly drones, according to the brief.

“The FAA’s position is untenable as it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding about journalism. News gathering is not a ‘business purpose.’ It is a First Amendment right,” the brief said.

The FAA said in a statement late Tuesday it was concerned that the NTSB judge’s decision “could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”

Media organizations are intensely interested in using drones for photography and videos because they are far less expensive to buy and operate than a manned airplane or helicopter, and because their size and versatility provide visual perspectives often not possible with manned aircraft.

Integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace also has the potential to improve the safety of reporting under less-than-ideal conditions, and unmanned aircraft by their nature pose less risk than helicopters, the news organizations said. Reports on traffic, hurricanes, wildfires, and crop yields could all be told more safely and cost-effectively with the use of unmanned aircraft, it said.

“This brief, filed by the country’s leading news organizations, supports the proposition we have argued that federal agencies must consult with the public before banning the use of new technologies that have many beneficial purposes,” said attorney Brendan Schulman, who is representing Pirker. “The argument becomes even stronger when First Amendment considerations are taken into account.”

Other media groups participating in the brief are Advance Publications Inc., Cox Media Group, Gannett Co., Gray Television Inc., Hearst Corporation, The McClatchy Company, the National Press Photographers Association, The National Press Club, The New York Times Company, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Radio-Television Digital News Association, Scripps Media Inc., Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., the Tribune Company and The Washington Post.

Posted by on May 7, 2014. Filed under Arts & Events. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One Response to News media challenge ban on journalism drones

  1. Dale Stringer Reply

    May 7, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    I see valid points to both side of this argument. The journalists are not the only ones the would benefit from drone use. Real estate agents could show aerial views of houses, business, land, etc. Logging companies could use them to plan better cutting. Even the talk about pizza delivery is viable.

    The FAA on the other side has the point of safety on their side. The drones that companies want to use are small and very difficult to visually detect. If some news agencies use drones and other use helicopters, then there are going to be collisions. Over major news events, the FAA has enough problems keeping the news and police helicopter from running into each other and they can see each other too. The good thing about the helicopter is you have to be in radio communication with the airspace controller. Most drone users do not have communication capabilities.
    So you can see why the FAA does not want drones in crowded airspace.

    I have to guess that the FAA is developing drone rules for these situations. Like every new rule/law, it will take a long time to work out all the details. If drones had a built in altitude limiter to kept them below 150 feet, then thing could move quickly. Unfortunately, I don’t know a single drone (outside of those used by the military) that have altimeters. With a 150 foot drone altitude ceiling, helicopters could be given 200 feet and up without fear of running into a flying blender.

    Eventually, the FAA will work out some rules for drones. Just give them some time. If you are inpatient, well you can catch the helicopter that just had a drone get sucked into its engine.

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