Drone Journalism: New Federal Regulations Raise Opportunities for Newsgathering


As many as 600,000 commercial drones will fill the air within the next year.

That’s the prediction from the Federal Aviation Administration in the wake of its Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, which went into effect at the end of August.

“Whether drones are used to support a business in some fashion or whether it is a drone business in and of itself, they will soon be critical to the success of many organizations,” said John Fry, a Morris, Manning & Martin LLP partner who chairs the firm’s drone practice group.

That includes news organizations and the journalists they employ.


Although it’s unlikely to ground news choppers, Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations may change the way television stations gather footage — particularly during breaking news coverage — in the near future.

“The new rules will expand the possibilities for capturing informative and engaging images,” said Anna M. Gomez, a partner with Wiley Rein in Washington, D.C.

In her capacity, Gomez counsels clients on U.S. and international regulation governing unmanned aircraft systems, including matters before the FAA.

“UAS are less expensive and safer to operate than, for example, helicopters. [They] will enable television stations in smaller markets to offer aerial coverage while also allowing stations in larger markets to supplement their current aerial capabilities,” she said.

At least one estimate suggests it costs “anywhere from $600,000-$1 million a year to maintain a chopper that’s constantly at the ready.” Once airborne, the meter averages $1,000 per hour of flight.

The Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule should afford journalists the flexibility to “improve their ability to inform the public and alert government first responders,” Gomez said.

Most notably, the FAA has eliminated the requirement that only licensed aircraft pilots can fly drones (providing at least 24 hours’ notice), but the new rules are not without limitations.


Among the restrictions, commercial drones must weigh less than fifty-five pounds. Operators must also keep the drone in their direct line of sight at all times and fly it no higher than 400-feet. And, under the law, unmanned drones may only fly during daylight hours and cannot fly over people.

There are exceptions.

The FAA granted CNN a waiver to fly newsgathering drones assigned to its Aerial Imagery and Reporting (CNN AIR) unit. The network has used drones to bring its viewers footage of the extensive flooding in Louisiana, enhance its coverage of the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and access otherwise unreachable regions of an earthquake-devastated Nepal.

“The FAA has announced its intent to utilize a risk-based regulatory regime for drone flights, and will permit more flexible uses as it understands the safety risks and remediation for drone operations,” Gomez added.

“Therefore, while the FAA gets comfortable with their use, particularly in more dense urban areas, journalists should operate drones in less risky areas to be able to prove that they can be operated safely.  While perhaps not as useful for breaking news, journalists can also use drones to film pre-planned segments, provided the operator gets a waiver from the FAA to conduct closed-set filming.”

Note: An earlier edition of this blog post originally ran on the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016.

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Wes Benter is a senior online community services specialist at ProfNet, a service that connects journalists with expert sources. He previously worked as a creative producer for PR Newswire’s MultiVu. Prior to that, Wes worked on-air as a reporter and weather anchor for network affiliates in the Midwest. Learn more by following him on Twitter @WBenter.

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