Missouri Drone Journalism Program to reconfigure goals after FAA letter

Through the eight months the Missouri Drone Journalism Program has operated, we’ve flown under the guidelines the FAA has set down for remote control aircraft. Those guidelines are generally as follows: a pilot may not fly above 400 feet, over populated areas, or near airports. A pilot may not fly beyond his range of sight, or without manual control.

Most of the showy stuff you’ve seen on youtube is outside of these boundaries as we’ve interpreted them. Because most private property extends to 500 ft in the air, we do not fly over land where we lack landowner permission. Because of how strictly we interpret the manual-control guideline, we do not use widely available GPS-guided flight.

Still, we’ve managed to safely produce high-quality, real pieces of journalism. We flew over public prairie to cover a controlled burn. And we flew over public waterways to get footage for a piece on fracking along the Missouri River.

Last month the Missouri Drone Journalism Program received a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requesting that we cease all outdoor flight until we obtain what’s called a Certificate of Authorization, or COA. Our colleagues at the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln received one too.

The FAA is still working on a full set of regulations for Unmanned Aerial Systems like our drones. But the agency does have a special certification process for “public agencies.” These include police agencies, fire departments and universities. The FAA considers our program a “public agency” and therefore asks that we apply for a COA in order to continue outdoor flight.

We intend to apply for a COA and we have no reason to think we will be denied. But it will significantly change the way we act as a program.

We will only be able to fly outdoors when within a single, small, contiguous airspace that is not a populated area. Any photography we obtain with the drone will be within this small space.

For the past several months, we were primarily concerned with the creation of news content with drone flight. Within a defined airspace, its hard to imagine the kinds of stories we can produce.

To reflect this new reality, the Program will spend the fall semester researching and applying for a COA. Once submitted, the COA will take about 60 business days to complete. Assuming the application is successful, in the spring we will work with a team of students to pursue the development of drone technology and techniques for journalism. We will experiment with different types of aircraft, sensors and cameras. Our research will help to lay a foundation for the future of drone journalism.

By Scott Pham


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