Legal Hotline: Drones

  • Feb 16, 2017

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  What are the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules for using drones, and how will they impact newsgathering?

A: On June 21, 2016, the FAA announced  rules governing commercial use of drones weighing under 55 pounds.  The  agency takes the position that the use of drones for non-hobby, i.e. commercial purposes, is illegal without FAA permission.  The FAA includes newsgathering in its definition of commercial purposes, and news organization wishing to use drone technology as a newsgathering tool must obtain FAA permission under  regulations, that  went into effect on August 20, 2016.

The primary goal of the FAA regulations is to minimize risk to other aircraft, as well as people and property on the ground. The regulations apply to drones weighing under 55 pounds used for non-hobby (commercial) purposes.  Drone operators must be at least 16 years old and possess a remote pilot certification with a small UAS rating, or be directly supervised by a person holding such a certificate. In order to obtain a remote pilot certification, prospective drone operators must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center, and all applicants are subject to a security background check by the Transportation Safety Administration. 

Once an operator is licensed, news organization drones may only be operated during daylight, unless the drone has anti-collision lights, which would allow operation during twilight. Drones may not be flown at night or over people not connected to the drone, and must be kept in the operator’s line of sight at all times, but news organizations can apply for a waiver of these prohibitions if they can show the proposed flights are safe. Drones must fly at less than 400 feet or 100 feet in airspace reserved for manned flight. Drone operators will also be required to perform a preflight visual and operational check to ensure that safety-pertinent systems are functioning property, including the communications link between the control station and the drone.

State and local governments have also proposed laws that affect drone use, although there are currently no PA laws that impact drone use by news organizations.  News organizations should determine if their local communities have enacted any rules that could affect newsgathering via drones.

Newspapers should also consider invasion of privacy when evaluating whether to use drones to gather news and whether to publish information gathered via drone technology. Some issues to consider are 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."

The PNA Foundation will offer a training session on drones, newsgathering and the FAA registration process on February 22, 2017. You can learn more about the training and register here.

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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