Drone Rules Tweaks Sought for Night Flight, Over Bystanders, Beyond VLOS

WASHINGTON—News organizations need to fly drones at night, over bystanders and beyond an operator’s visual line of sight, among other things. That’s according to joint comments filed by the National Association of Broadcasters, National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the Radio Television Digital News Association on proposed rules for commercial drone flight released by the Federal Aviation Administration Feb. l5.

“NAB, NCTA, and RTDNA are pleased with the breadth of operations that the proposed rules would permit, and offer suggestions of rule modifications and clarifications that would make this emerging technology even more useful for news and video production purposes,” the trio said in comments filed April 24, the end of the FAA’s comment period.

The proposed rules would limit commercial drones to daylight operation 500 feet above ground at 100 miles per hours; a weight of no more than 55 pounds, visual line-of-sight by the operator and three miles minimum visibility. They would require preflight inspections, no flight over people not involved in the operation or within restricted airspace and avoidance of all manned aircraft. Accidents resulting in property damage or injury would have to be reported.

The NAB, NCTA and the RTDNA asked for modifications allowing drones—aka, small Unmanned Aerial Systems, or sUAS—to operate over the public, at night, from a moving vehicle or aircraft; in restricted airspace, and beyond an operator’s line of sight.

The use of “visual observers” are allowed under the proposed rules, but not for extending the operator’s line of sight. The commenters said limiting flight range to the operator’s visual line of sight “would limit the effectiveness of using sUAS for newsgathering, sports coverage and video programming production for many reasons.” E.g., journalists covering emergency events may not be able to get close enough to a scene physically to maintain VLOS. The same may hold for sporting events held over large areas, such as a bike race.

“It would be unreasonable to force production crews to pack up and move a short distance away and re-launch their sUAS every time the aircraft ventures beyond the operator’s visual line of sight,” they said. “Hours of delay would be added to a simple aerial cinematography shot, during which time the lighting and conditions may have changed.”

The filers suggested the VLOS requirement be suspended for drones equipped with first-person view technology; in cases where journalists cannot safely get close to a scene; and where the environment mitigates safety concerns—such as a closed set, on private property or at “lower altitudes.”

The rules prohibit the use of a “daisy chain” of visual observers, which the commenters said could be useful without compromising public safety.

The FAA’s proposed rules also prohibit commercial drone flight over people not directly involved in the operation. This would severely limit drones for newsgathering the commenters said.

“Under this rule, it is likely that journalists with sUAS would be unable to cover the vast majority of news events,” the parties said. They noted that the FAA has granted “a number of exemptions” for aerial photography and filming over crowds. At the very least, they said, the agency should define persons “participating in the operation” to include audience members at live events in stadiums and at golf courses, for example.

Further, if the rule is retained, the FAA should clarify that only flights directly over non-participating people are prohibited.

“The FAA should specify that the rule would still permit sUAS with a camera that is capable of filming—at an angle—an area where people are present,” the commenters said. They also asked the agency to clarify that operators be held to a “good-faith belief” they are not flying over people, since they would not know with certainty who might be standing on the ground “at every moment of the flight.” They also asked the FAA to relax if not eliminate the rule in sparsely populated areas.

The FAA proposed limiting sUAS operators to daylight-only hours. This was a no-go for the commenters, who said it precludes the use of drones for covering many major sporting events, and news that occurs at night.

“Instead, the FAA should permit night flights under conditions that ensure safety,” they said.

The three also asked the FAA to reconsider its proposed restriction on operating a drone from a moving vehicle or an aircraft.

“News events, sports coverage, and video programming shots are
fluid and often mobile,” they said.

As for operations in restricted airspace—specifically, within five miles of an airport—they asked the FAA to consider a “sliding scale” where the allowable altitude decreases with proximity.

The FAA also proposed creating a “micro UAS” classification for drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds that would be allowed to fly over people. The NAB, NCTA and the RTDNA were fine with the classification, but asked to eliminate a “frangibility requirement” that micro UAS must be made of materials that break apart on impact. This would preclude the use of a camera and a gimbal, for example, because neither are frangible.

The three organizations agreed with pre-flight checks, yielding to manned aircraft and a maximum airspeed of 100 miles per hour. They also agreed that a single operator should operate only one small Unmanned Aerial System at a time, but urged the FAA to remain open to one person operating multiple drones, given the ongoing development of the technology.

The groups gave a thumbs up to the FAA for not requiring that a licensed pilot be at the controls, as it did in operational waivers granted to several TV and movie production companies last fall. (See “Video Production With UAVs: A Conversation With Tom Hallman,” Oct. 24, 2014.) Instead, a commercial drone operator would be required to pass an FAA-approved aeronautics test, obtain approval from the Transportation and Security Administration, become FAA-certified and be at least 17 years old.

The FAA received a total of 4,519 comments on the proposed rules. The agency must finalize rules for commercial drone operation by the end of September per federal mandate.

February 17, 2015
Non-Pilots Can Fly Drones Under Proposed Rules
The proposal is counter to exemptions granted last year to several TV and movie production companies requiring unmanned aerial systems to be operated by a licensed pilot. The FAA said the requirement would pose an “unnecessary burden for many small UAS operations.”