New FAA rules for drones were recently approved, and the rules may provide more opportunities for broadcasters to get in the game.  Emilie de Lozier from my firm offers these thoughts:

Broadcasters, prepare for takeoff later this summer.  The Federal Aviation Administration recently finalized rules to broadly permit the commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (“sUAS”) – or drones – provided certain requirements are met.  The new rules are in many cases more permissive than the existing regulatory framework, but some potential pitfalls remain.  Rest assured, we are here to help you navigate the complexities of this new regime.  Below we provide a high-level discussion of the new rules and their effect on broadcasters’ future sUAS operations to support newsgathering.

We previously wrote about the FAA rulemaking to develop these rules here.  As a quick refresher, in 2012, Congress directed the FAA to develop a plan for incorporating drones into the national airspace.  In the meantime, the FAA created an exemption process pursuant to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to authorize commercial UAS operations on a case-by-case basis.  The FAA has granted more than 5,000 exemption requests to date, including for newsgathering purposes, and thousands of these requests remain pending.  (If your petition is among those pending, you should monitor your petition docket for a status update from the FAA in the coming weeks.)  The new rules are intended to minimize the need for parties, including broadcasters, to seek such exemptions.

Some broadcasters have been quick to adopt sUAS and that trend is likely to expand once the rules become effective on August 29, 2016.  Indeed, the new rules offer many cost-saving and other benefits when compared to the requirements generally imposed by the FAA in Section 333 exemptions.  For example, broadcasters will have more leeway when operating near crowds.  The new rules only prohibit flights directly over people not participating in the drone’s operations, whereas Section 333 exemptions now prohibit flights anywhere within 500 feet of nonparticipants.  Further, the rules create a streamlined, drone-specific pilot’s license – the “remote pilot certificate” – that allows operators to avoid the time-consuming and expensive training needed to fly manned aircraft.  Finally, it is important to note that although certain legacy restrictions (e.g., visual line of sight, flights over people) are preserved in the new rules, the FAA established a mechanism for operators to apply for waivers.  In fact, most operational restrictions in the new rules are waivable upon showing that the operation can be conducted safely.

Even with a broad waiver mechanism, there are legal risks associated with deploying drones for newsgathering.  The new rules preserve many safety restrictions that all airborne newsgathering operations – be they by drone or helicopter – must observe, such as a prohibition on reckless operations.  And, with these restrictions come significant compliance obligations, including some registration and recordkeeping requirements like registering drones and reporting accidents.  Broadcasters are therefore encouraged to develop compliance plans and abide by best practices to avoid FAA sanctions.

Finally, broadcasters seeking to take advantage of the new rules must take several preliminary steps before commencing operations.  First, commercial drones must be registered and marked.  For more information on that process, click here.

In addition, all operations must be conducted by, or under the supervision of, a person who holds a remote pilot certificate.  Licensed pilots on staff (with an up-to-date flight review) can quickly achieve this certification by taking an online training course.  In the alternative, non-licensed individuals can obtain certification by passing an aeronautical knowledge test, among other requirements.  So, if you carefully follow the rules, starting August 29, broadcasters will have many more opportunities to use drones in their operations.