FAA crackdown on universities impedes advances in drone journalism

Ben Kriemer, a University of Nebraska - Lincoln  journalism student involved with the Drone Journalism Lab, works on a multirotor drone. Photo by the Journal Star.

Ben Kriemer, a University of Nebraska - Lincoln  journalism student involved with the Drone Journalism Lab, works on a multirotor drone. Photo by the Journal Star.

Last week, University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite posted some disheartening news on the blog of his Drone Journalism Lab's website, DroneJournalismLab.org. The Federal Aviation Administration sent his program a "cease and desist" letter, effectively grounding the program for the time being.

Mizzou's own drone journalism program received the same letter from the FAA, at close to the same time. 

To be clear, the FAA didn't outright deny these programs the privilege to fly.  Instead, it made clear that journalism schools must be approved for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to fly aircraft.

The COA process is a lengthy and time-consuming one. It requires extensive documentation of the aircraft, a detailed flight plan, contingency plans in the event of equipment failure, and sometimes even medical examinations for the pilots. The turn-around time for a COA is about 60 days.

But perhaps most importantly, it puts real limits on the ability for journalists to respond to important events in a timely manner. In the words of Waite, "The COA process, as it stands now, is antithetical to journalism."

This FAA crackdown is unfortunate news for journalism schools, and for drone journalism in general. Both Nebraska and Missouri programs have made impressive contributions to this nascent field.

Nebraska was the first school to use a small unmanned aircraft as part of a news report, which provided aerial video of the record-setting drought in that state. Mizzou used drones to report on a controlled prairie burn and the Missouri/Illinois fracking boom.

The journalists and educators of the Nebraska and Missouri drone programs are the most recent additions to a growing group of people who have had valuable work cut short by aviation authorities.  Many others have attempted to fly under safe, controlled conditions, below the altitude at which manned aircraft fly, only to be stopped by the FAA (this was a reoccurring theme at a recent drone conference for small businesses).

Current rules do allow a person to fly unmanned aircraft over an unpopulated area, away from airports and hospitals, so long as the aircraft stays under 400 feet. But the aircraft can only be flown strictly for hobby or recreational use; and must operate in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines, among other rules , according section 366 of the FAA Reauthorization Act. (I should note here that since 2010, the Academy of Model Aeronautics has spent more than $205,000 on lobbying, hiring Alaska Senator Ted Steven's former chief of staff, Mitch Rose. The AMA also had assistance from John Mica (R-FL), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Tom Petri (R-WI), and the amendment was sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK))

What makes those rules so infuriating to many is that a person can fly the same equipment in the same manner as a hobbyist without so much as a phone call, but as soon as the goal becomes something other than recreation, that person suddenly needs to fill out a stack of paperwork and wait 60 days for approval.

Waite has begun the lengthy process of applying for a COA, and it appears that both drone journalism programs in Nebraska and Missouri will continue to do research. Since these universities are doing the groundbreaking research that commercial news outlets can't or won't do, it's imperative that these programs continue to make advances in drone journalism.

The upshot, if that is an appropriate word, is this series of events has inspired Waite and COJMC's Bill Allen to create a special venue to discuss regulations, privacy and ethics: the first ever conference for drone journalism. Details pending, but block off your calendars for October 24 through 26, and plan on being at the Embassy Suites in Lincoln, Neb.