Legal Hotline: Drones

  • Jun 16, 2016

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  Can we use drones or other unmanned aerial cameras to gather video at newsworthy events occurring on public property?

 A:  The laws governing the use of drone technology are unsettled, and there is risk associated with using drones to gather news unless your news organization has obtained permission from the FAA.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) takes the position that the use of drones for commercial purposes is illegal.  The FAA includes newsgathering as a “commercial use.”  The FAA has sent warning letters to newspapers that have used drones to gather news, including a warning sent to an Ohio newspaper that posted drone footage to its website taken by a hobbyist.  The FAA also sent warning letters to collegiate journalism projects at the University of Missouri the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, requesting the programs to cease outdoor drone operation unless they receive FAA authorization.  

A group of 10 media companies and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are conducting a drone journalism lab at one of six test areas approved by Congress. The participants have been working with the FAA as they consider rules to govern drones used by news organizations, and the FAA has proposed new rules to govern the use of drone technology for newsgathering. The proposal is subject to public comment and the FAA held a series of public meetings on the issue with the final regulations expected later this year.

 Until the new rules governing drone use are finalized and go into effect, the only way to secure FAA approval for commercial drone use is to obtain a Section 333 waiver. Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act grants FAA permission to low-risk drones weighing under 55 pounds that do not create a safety risk. Drone registration under the FAA’s new registration rule is required to seek FAA approval under Section 333, and there a number of other requirements that must be met in order to obtain approval.

 In addition to the legal issues created by FAA regulations, newspapers should also consider invasion of privacy when evaluating content for publication, including whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, whether the content is newsworthy and whether the content could be considered “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact your newspaper’s attorney or the Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.

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