Media Learn Limitations, Freedoms Under New Drone Rules

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By Ellie Smith

Aug. 4 — Journalists will be permitted to use drones for reporting when new Federal Aviation Administration rules take effect later this month—but not without a license and under some limitations.

Under the rules, operators of drones lighter than 55 pounds must obtain a license and operate the aircraft within the operator or spotter's visual line of sight (VLOS) during daylight hours and no more than above 400 feet from the ground or above a structure. Drones can't be operated directly overhead, per the impending regulations.

The regulations were developed to mitigate safety risks while upholding news gathering rights under the First Amendment, Earl Lawrence, the director of unmanned aircraft systems at the FAA, told journalists Aug. 4 at a briefing hosted at Holland & Knight LLP in Washington.

The FAA finalized rules for commercial, scientific and public safety use of small unmanned aircraft systems in June (21 ECLR 1039, 6/29/16). The rules will take effect Aug. 29.

First Amendment Addressed

Lawrence said he worked with the News Media Coalition when writing the rules to ensure they would respect First Amendment rights. “We've been trying to get with as many groups as possible before the effective date,” he said. “First Amendment rights really is something we paid a lot of attention to.”

Members of the media will have to learn basic aviation regulations to use drones, which they will be tested on before earning a license to operate an unmanned aircraft, Lawrence said.

Operators can waive limitations by submitting proposals to the FAA. Waiver proposals can be “long-term,” and news organizations can ask for permission to regularly operate a drone in a certain area or at a particular time of day, Lawrence said.

The rules don't limit how far drones must be from people. Lawrence said that proximity depends on the size and function of the drone. “We didn't define that. The focus is safety and not doing anything in a reckless or careless manner,” he said.

The FAA's regulations don't address privacy policies surrounding drone operation or use of footage obtained through drones.

Journalists and all other commercial operators can take the test beginning Aug. 29 to obtain the unmanned aircraft license and can apply for waivers immediately. Exemption applications pending under FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 will be processed first, Lawrence said.

By Ellie Smith

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellie Smith in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at

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