FAA Looks Into News Corp’s Daily Drone, Raising Questions About Who Gets To Fly Drones in The U.S.
While drones are now in heavy use by the U.S. military in our wars abroad, and to a certain extent by U.S. law enforcement within our country’s borders, the use of drones by private entities is still a highly-regulated and legally murky area. A big part of the reason for that are the privacy issues raised. Robot guru Ryan Calo, director of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, has voiced concerns to me (and to American Public Media’s Marketplace) about paparazzi drones that could be used to fly around using facial recognition technology to find and obsessively photograph Brad Pitt.
I started digging around to find out exactly what’s required for a private business to get itself a drone and start buzzing it around. I’ve been going back and forth with the Federal Aviation Administration about “unmanned aircraft” for months. Hobbyists are basically free to use drones as long as they keep them under 400 feet. At this point, civil and commercial use of drones is only allowed for research and development purposes. “Not for compensation or hire” says one FAA notice. To get government permission to use a drone (for non-hobby purposes), a private entity has to jump through hoops including getting an airworthiness certificate — meaning the thing is safe to fly — and an experimental certificate, approving the planned use of the unmanned system (uses are currently limited to research and development, marketing surveys, or crew training).
The FAA told me earlier this year that the Unmanned Aircraft Systems office has issued 83 experimental certificates for 20 different kinds of drones. “Currently, 18 of those experimental certificates are active,” said spokesperson Les Dorr. The FAA declined to identify the companies that hold those certificates (and have not yet responded to a FOIA for those names). “An experimental certificate allows the holder to do tests, training and demos but not for-hire operations. Ops also must be conducted away from populated areas,” added Dorr.
The News Corp’s The Daily has a drone that it’s sent out a few times, as noted by The Observer. After The Daily broadcast some incredible footage of Alabama after it was devastated by storms, UAS Vision reported that The Daily owns a MicroDrone MD4-1000. The Daily sent it out again in June to bring back video from Minot, North Dakota after intense flooding there. (Total non-sequitur: Drones can hack cell phones now, you know.)
Taking footage for news-gathering purposes seemed like a commercial use of a drone, which is a no-no, as I understand it. I followed up with the FAA asking if News Corp was one of the companies with an experimental certificate. The inquiry got lobbed to the FAA’s legal department…
Using drones for news-gathering seems like a pretty cool idea, though it’s easy to imagine the robot paparazzi future that Ryan Calo fears. While FAA regulations may currently prohibit such a use, the agency is planning to revisit — and possibly relax — those regulations this year, potentially making it easier for private companies to fly the friendly skies with drones.
The Sooner State, for one, is trying to pave the way for that future. As noted by drone guru Calo, the state of Oklahoma “has taken steps to reserve an air corridor for the domestic use of autonomous drones. If approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, this would free up an 80 mile stretch for the military, hobbyists, and others to operate drones in U.S. airspace.”
So perhaps we’ll be seeing a lot of drone-enabled news out of Oklahoma soon. Celebs may want to steer clear of the area.
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