How Important is CNN’s Drone Authorization From the FAA?

January 14, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

The projections and possibilities unmanned aircraft, or drones, will open up are enormous. Some moderate estimates indicate drones will become a billion dollar industry. Several industries have stated that the use of drones will immensely increase productivity, accuracy, and overall better service. Advocates for recreational civilian use believe there are also benefits (the amazing never before seen footage captured last summer of a drone flying directly into a fireworks show) but recently have voiced their frustration with the Federal Aviation Administration for its glacial response to Congressional legislation on crafting rules for unmanned aircraft in US airspace.

Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012­­­­­, Congress mandated the FAA to establish rules for drones to safely operate within US airspace – the safest and most heavily trafficked airspace in the world. However, many fear the FAA will zip past the September 2015 deadline without promulgating any rules.

Under current US law, individuals may operate unmanned aircraft so long as the device is used for recreational purposes, the device is operated safely, the aircraft’s weight does not exceed 55 pounds, the aircraft does not interfere with manned aircraft, and the aircraft is not flown within five miles of an airport. Additional restraints bar drones from being used for commercial purposes – a major point of contention with some industries such as Amazon, which last year detailed a program in which they wish to ship packages via drones. The only aircraft US law permits to be flown without any permits or special permission are model aircraft, defined as “(1) capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; (2) flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and (3) flown for hobby or recreational purposes.” Under the line of sight requirement, such model aircraft cannot be flown over 400 feet.

Aircraft that weigh more than 55 pounds are not considered model aircraft and thus require special licensure. Typically, unmanned aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds are used by law enforcement agencies as commercial use is banned – even for model aircraft – though there are requirement for civil use as well. Specifically, one must have a pilot’s license in order to operate any larger aircraft that might exceed 55 pounds and be flown outside line of sight.

The FAA has, however, begun to recognize, to a degree, their lethargy in establishing rules to integrate drones into US airspace. As recently as last summer, the FAA began to issue certain exemptions, as permitted by statute, to commercial bans and airworthiness certifications or licensure to fly certain aircraft.  The first company to be granted a license to use drones for commercial purposes was British Petroleum (BP) to surveil their pipelines and infrastructure, which will save the company time and man power. The FAA also granted exemptions to a few movie studios to allow them to use drones for filming.

The biggest news to come in the form of an exemption was on Monday when the FAA permitted national broadcast giant CNN to test drones for the purposes of gathering news. News gathering is one of the main areas of interest for drone proliferation as it is cheaper than renting a helicopter for aerial views. In fact, the University of Missouri, thought to be one of the premier journalism schools in the country, has a curriculum devoted to what is called drone journalism.

How important is the FAA’s exemption to CNN and how will this shape the national drone debate? Right now it is hard to say. The FAA is only issuing exemptions on a case by case basis while the rest of the nation waits for the agency to promulgate broader rules for use. Even the military must obtain certain permits, certificates, and permission from the FAA to test or operate drones in the US airspace. Many civil liberties advocates are wary of privacy issues if thousands of drones are suddenly allowed to fly in the national airspace because simple quad copters equipped with GoPro cameras can capture surprisingly clear footage. Furthermore, civil liberties advocates worry about the abuse of law enforcement agencies to use drones for surveillance purposes without a warrant.

A recent paper published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, offered recommendations for state legislators who wish to regulate the inevitable drone proliferation within their states. The paper’s five core recommendations state that legislators should approach drone legislation from a property rights perspective, legislators should limit law enforcement surveillance duration based on a time limit, data retention procedures should have some type of “heightened level[] of suspicion and increased procedural protection[] for accessing stored data gathered by aerial surveillance,” transparency and accountability measures should be adopted, and lastly, a warning that legislators should recognize that drone technology could make “surveillance by drones more protective of privacy than human surveillance.”

Currently, for the FAA, safety is the name of the game. The US maintains the safest, yet the most heavily trafficked airspace in the world. If and when drones are permitted among the public, that will mean an increase of thousands of additional aircraft. The Washington Post reported recently that there were 25 reported incidents of near collisions between commercial aircraft and unmanned aircraft between June and November. Despite the current rules (model aircraft be flown below 400 feet and five miles away from airports) that should safeguard against such encounters, the FAA’s report demonstrates why the issue of introducing drones into commercial airspace is such a deliberative issue.

As for the future of commercial and recreational drone proliferation, it is still unclear when the FAA will issue rules pertaining to widespread drone use. While the CNN announcement is headline grabbing, realistically, it does not demonstrate much in the area of improvement for proponents of domestic drone use.