Drone program continues at MU with an eye on FAA regs: Flying High

Aug 1, 2015

BY Stanley Schwartz | Publishers’ Auxiliary

Even though FAA regulations make most commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones or UAVs, illegal, the University of Missouri School of Journalism is continuing to train students to fly them.

Bill Allen, who teaches science and agriculture journalism at the university’s Columbia, MO, campus, began the course, Civilian Drone Issues, Application and Flight, in 2013. This past spring 2015 semester, Rick Shaw, who is with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and also teaches visual journalism and multimedia at the Missouri School of Journalism, joined Allen’s course after sitting in on the class to help Allen expand the course with respect to visual journalism.

In 2013, Allen produced a video using a UAV, showing how prairie fires could be prevented by using controlled burns. It wasn’t long after the video was shared online that the university received a letter from the FAA.

“It basically said, ‘Don’t do this.’” Shaw said. The FAA was restricting commercial use of UAVs, but it did have an exemption available—a Certificate of Authorization was necessary from the FAA before using a drone commercially.

Even if Allen and Shaw were just teaching a class on how to fly drones, they would be in violation of current federal regulations.

“All these universities that think they can fly these UAVs and skirt the law will eventually find themselves in trouble with the FAA,” he added.

The COA requires notice of what is going to be filmed on a specific date, location, time and with what type of aircraft.

For news organizations trying to cover breaking news, a COA would become a heavy burden, Shaw said. He estimates that more than 700 exemptions were issued last month by the FAA for commercial drone use.

In light of the restrictions on flying drones in public space outside, Shaw and Allen started up the program again, but this time, they are having students learn to fly UAVs inside. They now use the J.W. Burch Arena, which is a livestock arena on the campus.

Even with the FAA restrictions, Shaw said he believes at some point they will be eased, allowing for news organizations to use UAVs to cover the news. That is why they are continuing with the class and getting students ready to pilot these aircraft. He wants students to have a marketable skill in operating UAVs when they graduate.

“There are endless ways to use them and capture images,” Shaw said. News organizations can use them for map data creation and building 3D images of areas where a news story has taken place.

Although currently the program is cross-listed between agriculture and journalism, Shaw said he wants to carve out a course specific for journalism and incorporate that into a separate class.

RJI sponsored Shaw to attend a weeklong training class at the Unmanned Safety Institute in Florida so he could become certified in UAV flight instruction. Other groups, such as firefighters and police are finding uses for UAVs in their areas of work.

“This is an emerging technology,” Shaw said, “and we want to be front and center in that space.”

Before this, if a journalist wanted to get an aerial view of a story, he or she would have to hire an aircraft and pilot, and that could cost from $175 to $200 an hour with a three-hour minimum commitment.

Drone costs have come down, making them affordable to even the smallest news organization. By attaching a digital camera to one, he explained, a newspaper could have a fully functioning aerial platform with minimum investment. Some UAVs already come equipped with a camera.

The class is proving popular, he added.

“Students are doing back flips trying to get into this class,” he said. Twenty-two students were enrolled last semester, but Shaw said he could easily have filled another session. “There is more demand (for the class) then we have faculty or aircraft.”

The class is split between lectures and a lab. Students get five or six, 30-minute hands-on labs where they learn to pilot a UAV.

Currently, he is using a DJI Phantom 1 UAV to train students. It’s relatively inexpensive, which is good when dealing with student pilots.

First, students spend a few classes learning to fly the Phantom without a camera. Shaw has also started using a UAV flight simulator to help train students. The flight simulator is not the same type used by regular pilots who are learning to fly planes or helicopters. It’s software that can be loaded onto a PC that has a graphics card. Instructors can program in wind speed and other conditions to simulate emergencies.

As an added bonus, Shaw said, after the Defense Department released its GPS satellite service for public use in cellphones, drones became more stable. Before this, if a pilot moved the drone forward with the controls and then let go of them, the UAV would continue moving. The drones equipped with GPS will now stop and hover when a pilot takes his hands off the controls.

Shaw also said that drone manufacturers offer automatic software updates, and as part of those updates, the UAVs are prevented from lifting off in restricted air space, such as being too close to an airport.


“The main emphasis is on safety—always,” Shaw said. “Hands-on training, flight simulators, advances in GPS technology, and software updates by manufacturers all add to safe and responsible flight of unmanned aircraft.”

This year 10 news organizations were granted the Section 333 exemption to fly UAVs. The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN were in that group, Shaw said. A lot of news companies overseas are employing UAVs in their coverage, he added.

Shaw said he believes once the commercial use restrictions are eased, there will be a high demand for UAV use in covering the news.