The delayed flight of the news drones

The FAA missed its deadline to integrate drones, creating a setback for the U.S. in the global drone movement
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Jennevieve Fong

An image from a drone shows damage from California wildfires in September.

The Federal Aviation Association missed its deadline for the integration of drones into the nation's airspace, leaving unresolved the issue of how and when the news media might be able to use drones in newsgathering.

Congress mandated this Sept. 30, 2015, deadline in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

According to NBC News, an FAA spokesperson stated final regulations for drones should be in place “late next spring.”

“We have been consistent in saying that we're going to move as quickly as possible,” the FAA spokesperson said to NBC News. “But the integration of unmanned aircraft into the nation's airspace is going to have to proceed on an incremental basis.”

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, has been a strong advocate for the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Osterreicher, part of a media coalition that includes the Reporters Committee, has been pushing the FAA to allow for safe and lawful use of drones for newsgathering purposes.

“The only problem now in 2015 is that the technology is expanding at an exponential rate,” Osterreicher said in a Journalism/Works podcast. “Whereas, unfortunately, the law, at least in this respect, is bogged down in bureaucracy and is going along at the glacial pace.”

In Section 332 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the FAA was instructed to create a comprehensive plan containing standards for operation and certification, requirements for the operators and pilots, a timeline for integration, airspace designation, the establishment of a certification process and the ensured safe operation of drones.

After the FAA missed several of their previous deadlines, a congressional committee flagged the problem in May 2014.

USFS Photo

The U.S. Forest Service released a poster this past summer warning people not to fly drones near wildfires.

“It is uncertain when the FAA can integrate UAS into the Nation’s airspace and what will be required to achieve the goal,” the House of Appropriations Committee stated in a report. “The Committee is concerned that the FAA may not be well positioned to manage effectively the introduction of UAS in the United States.”

The FAA has only managed to propose unfinalized rules for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) weighing under 55 pounds and issue case-by-case exemptions for commercial operations.

“While it has provided some guidance, where before there was none, it still does not authorize news organizations to use sUAS themselves but rather rely on others to provide newsworthy images those individuals may have taken,” Osterreicher said.

The FAA had a public comment period on the sUAS proposed rulemaking in which over 4,500 comments were received. The agency is currently reviewing these comments before issuing final regulations.

Many businesses that want to use drones commercially are upset about this delay. A coalition of organizations, led by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta expressing their frustration.

“In the absence of regulations, American businesses and innovators are left sitting on the sidelines or operating under a restrictive exemption process,” the coalition wrote.

Civil operations drones can obtain Section 333 exemptions on a case-by-case basis, but the process is difficult and slow.

“Even though the FAA has done its best to streamline and expedite the application and approval process for Section 333 exemptions, many organizations believe it is still too slow and limiting to business growth,” Osterreicher said.

There has been a sharp increase in the amount of certified drones recently: The FAA issued 1,407 exemptions as of last month for businesses in a variety of industries including aerial photography, film and television, construction and real estate.

“The increasing number of businesses applying for Section 333 exemptions demonstrates the pent-up demand for commercial UAS operations and the immediate need for a regulatory framework,” the coalition wrote.

With a pressing demand and unfinalized regulations from the FAA, some state governments have passed legislation to fill the void.

According to the AUVSI, California, Texas, and Florida have the highest population of drone operators.

California enacted legislation prohibiting public agencies from using drones, with an exception for law enforcement agencies with proper warrants. Recently, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed numerous drone-restricting bills that outlawed flying drones over wildfires, schools, and prisons.

Earlier this month, Gov. Brown vetoed another bill that restricted flying drones lower than 350 feet over private property. He stated in his veto message this bill "could expose the occasional hobbyist and the FAA-approved commercial user alike to burdensome litigation and new causes of action."

Texas and Florida passed drone legislation in 2013. Texas passed the Texas Privacy Act, which provided guidelines and penalties for images captured by drones. Florida enacted drone legislation stating law enforcement agencies cannot gather or use evidence obtained from a drone.

“Unfortunately, those states have imposed laws that are specifically targeted at drone technology,” Osterreicher said. “Many news groups believe that already existing privacy laws are sufficient to address these issues and further that some of them may be constitutionally suspect and subject to successful challenge if enforced.”

Osterreicher said companies in other countries have an advantage in drone development because many American companies that would like to use drones are afraid of getting fined or being found liable for unauthorized operations.

"This country can ill afford to let [this] business go elsewhere just because we can’t get around to coming up with some commonsense, not overly burdensome regulations,” Osterreicher said in the podcast.

A version of this article appeared on our website on October 16, 2015.