You need FAA permission before flying a drone

Aug 1, 2015

By Matt Waite
University of Nebraska

Let’s get a few things clear right off the bat. If you want to use a drone to do journalism in the U.S. legally, you have to get permission from the FAA. 

But what about journalism education? What if I want to teach students how to use these devices? Education is different from commercial activities, right?

Answer: No. The FAA does not recognize an educational user. You’re either government, hobbyist or everyone else, who they label as commercial. Now, the loophole here was that if you were a public university, you could get a Certificate of Authorization, or a COA, to do research as a government user.

A year ago, the FAA issued a memo clarifying just who and what at universities qualified for COAs allowing drone research to go on. Before this memo, it was sorta kinda more wide open for public universities to get permission from the FAA to conduct drone research. There wasn’t a clear standard, so it was a bit of a crap shoot. We had been working on one—in fits and starts—since we got a cease and desist order in 2013 telling us to get a COA or stop, but we hadn’t formally submitted it by the time of this memo.

The memo, from the FAA’s lawyers to the UAS office, basically said a COA wasn’t a magic get-out-of-jail-free card for universities to do things the private sector could not. There had to be a reason they got the special government rules, and those reasons had to be aeronautical research or fulfilling a government function.

I looked at that and thought, well, huh. Are we aeronautical research? Not really, because we’re not in the business of building the better drone. Are we a government function? Heh. Journalism as a government function. The First Amendment says hell no. But what about journalism education? Can I argue that because we’re a state university that means whatever I do is a government function? Nope.

“Your application’s Program Executive Summary is not a government function under Title 49 U.S. Code (49 USC) section 40125(a)(2); therefore, the proposed operation would not be a public aircraft operation for which the authorization is intended” was the response I got from the FAA. My program executive summary? To create safety and ethical procedures for drone journalism. Not a government function.

If the Drone Journalism Lab—or any journalism school, public or private—is going to do anything in the U.S., and if students were going to have any chance to learn about these devices in a class not conducted indoors, then there is only one legal path left: The Section 333 exemption.

Section 333 was in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act that had everyone paying attention to the Drones In The NAS.

 The hitch with the 333? The pilot in command has to be a licensed pilot. Manned aircraft pilot. Originally, you had to be a Private pilot, but the FAA later lowered that to a Sport Light pilot. The difference? Fewer flight hours required and greater restrictions on the Sport Light pilot, oversimplifying it.

So what does it take to get a Sport Light license? About 25 hours of flying with an instructor. Five hours of flying solo. Fifteen hours of ground instruction. And about 25 hours of home study. Costs vary by place, but I’ve budgeted $6,500.

That’s right. I’m getting a pilot’s license. I started May 21.

As of now, my log book has 6.8 hours of flight time, and I’ve made 25 landings. I’ve gone from edge-of-panic, death-grip-on-the-stoke to pretty-sure-I’m-not-going-to-die-so-breathe-now pretty quickly, and each time up is a little more confident than the last.

Journalism faculty, wrap your heads around this. You can see the writing on the wall, yes? Drones are coming to newsrooms. They’re creeping into them now—a Chicago TV station has an employee with a 333, CNN has a formal partnership with the FAA and NBC News has used them a half dozen times overseas that we know of. They’re going to be a widespread tool the moment the rules get put into place. And we know this. It’s clear to everyone. So why not get a jump on things now?

I get more than an e-mail a week from a professor that starts with “we’re thinking about buying a drone” or “we’ve bought a drone; now what?” And the first thing I tell them is “don’t fly outside.” And this is baffling to so many. What do you mean? I see people doing this all the time! How could this not be OK?

Within some basic limitations, it should be OK. But it’s not. The FAA, the aviation regulator in the U.S., has said any use that’s not hobbyist use requires their permission. And here’s how you get it. You want to get it? Follow the rules.

So no, southern university in a state that starts with M, only flying over campus doesn’t make it OK. Same thing to you, other southern university a few states to the east, and several others playing tee-hee games with the rules, thinking you’re clever.

We’ll be filing our 333 paperwork later this summer, contingent on me getting my Sport Light license. Got to pass a written test, an oral test, and then I have to take a check ride with an FAA flight inspector before that happens.

Wish me luck. © Matt Waite 2015


Matt Waite, a professor of practice at the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications, originally wrote this for his blog. Reprinted with permission.