By Brandon Ballenger
A little more than a year ago, as SPJ Florida president, I talked our board of directors into buying the latest-and-greatest drone for photography. I didn’t know it then, but we wouldn’t be able to use it the way I hoped — until now.
Commercial use of drones (which includes all media, even nonprofits) was completely illegal at the time unless you had a professional pilot’s license and special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration — because you totally need to understand the mechanics of a Boeing 747 or how to fly a hot air balloon to operate a two-pound flying camera.
The FAA, realizing the farcical state of the rules, was due to update them by September. But it was already making specific agreements to let the big boys like CNN use them for journalism. My argument was the rest of us shouldn’t be left behind just because the federal government couldn’t get its act together.
Today, the FAA is finally changing those rules and leveling the playing field. They’ll take effect in August. Here’s a look at what we’ve been up to, and what we plan to do now…
Cleared for takeoff
It was May 2015. The original plan was to buy the just-released Phantom 3 Pro — the iPhone of drones — and learn to use it ourselves before offering training to freelance journalists and smaller newsrooms.
The goals were to serve as a try-before-you-buy for newsrooms that might not have the budget to blow on unproven tech, and to open up this new skill to more journalists before commercial legalization so they could be ahead of the game.
There was some skepticism, but the board let me do it. I had already been to two hands-on drone training sessions in Miami, but there were major differences between the model I had flown and the Phantom 3, and I still needed lots of practice to feel confident enough to show other people how it all worked.
I figured a month or two would be enough, and I’d be able to host a session at our annual conference and award ceremony in July. (Which I did, and the hands-on portion of it was interrupted by a bomb threat. Good times.) From there, I could start teaching elsewhere until the rules were finalized in September.
Unfortunately, the FAA proved the skeptics right. It totally blew the deadline set by Congress, despite having more than three years to prepare. When I contacted the FAA myself, it promised me the rules would be in place by Spring 2016 — and here it is, summer.
But the FAA, however late, finally fulfilled its promise. And while it isn’t everything the industry asked for (we’ll talk more about that later) it’s at least a framework for journalists to operate legally and start earning their wings with this new technology.
In a holding pattern
While we’ve waited for the FAA to finalize new rules for drone use, I’ve been focused on showing off what the drone can do, educating journalists about drone safety and potential uses, and giving hands-on demonstrations.
None of that is considered commercial use because I’ve done it for free — no compensation — and we haven’t published much footage. I’ve tried to err on the side of caution without sitting on my thumbs. I’ve done training for high schoolers, college students, and pros in Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando, and even in Cincinnati when I was invited to present at the SPJ Region 4/Region 5 joint conference this past April. During that time, I’ve had positive conversations about drones with local law enforcement, TSA agents, and even a Fish and Wildlife officer. (I unwittingly flew over federal lands a couple times.)
One officer I spoke with, who was a pilot himself, was also frustrated by the lengthy delays. His municipality, and plenty of other cities and states, were discussing or passing their own drone rules to fill the void left by the FAA and address public concerns about privacy and safety. Sometimes these rules were frustratingly vague or conflicted with existing FAA rules, making enforcement difficult.
Some of the guidance at the time was sketchy, too. For instance, the FAA said recreational drone flyers had to notify an airport’s air traffic controller before flying within five miles of one. But they didn’t explain how to reach them, or what to say, or whether the controller had to grant permission or whether mere notification was enough. (Don’t do that.)
Later, they released an app with a map of where it was OK to fly — but it conflicted wildly with a map on a website they had created with industry partners, because one included heliports while the other did not.
The only guidance provided on media use was one FAA memo. It further clarified the ridiculous stance that journalistic use is commercial, but hobby use is not — even if it’s the same person flying the same drone. All that matters to the FAA is how you intended to use the drone at the time of flying it.
It also said that media couldn’t get in trouble paying for a third party to fly the drone or give them image/video — that the pilot would be the one subject to FAA sanctions. So this was a possible loophole for commercial use, but not one anybody really wanted to risk as the FAA was starting to hand out hefty fines.
In December, the FAA finally signaled that it was moving forward by implementing mandatory drone registration before flying. I’m happy to say SPJ Florida registered its drone the first day the process was available.
Throwing caution to the wind
With new rules falling in place and commercial use opening up for the entire industry, it’s finally time to get back to the original plan. In August, we’ll share more details about how you can use our drone for journalism projects. For now, I just want to share some of our upcoming trainings.
I’ll be presenting a hands-on session at this year’s Excellence in Journalism conference Sept. 18-20 in New Orleans. As part of the same track, there will be great sessions covering the legalities and ethical considerations of drones from my colleagues Mickey Osterreicher of the National Press Photographers Association and Andrew Seaman, SPJ’s ethics chair. I hope you’ll be there and go to all three.
We’ve also secured funding from the SDX Foundation to run a drone training roadtrip to college campuses across the South this fall. It’ll be a 10-day, nine-city tour in late October, culminating in a session at the SPJ Region 3 Conference in Atlanta — the schools have already been decided, and we’ll be sharing details as we hammer them out.
I’m excited to do more, and look forward to sharing a lot more footage as soon as I earn the new sUAS pilot certificate. I’ll be sharing details about that process as I go through it. If you have questions about the new drone rules, are interested in training opportunities, or just want to talk about how cool they are, you can reach me on Twitter or by email. Happy flying!