Is It Legal To Fly Your Drone?

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As drones become increasingly popular, the rules governing them remain murky.

KCRW staffers practice flying the station’s new Phantom 2 UAV at a park in West Los Angeles. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Recently at a big and nearly empty public park in West Los Angeles, some of us here at KCRW tested our newest piece of equipment: a Phantom 2 quadcopter. With four miniature rotors and the capability of carrying a small video camera in its undercarriage, the Phantom 2, which retails for about $1,200, is one of many new and very popular consumer drones out on the market.

But other than the fact that it’s a kick to fly, why exactly does KCRW have a drone? Like a lot of other institutions, companies and people out there, we think drones could one day help us do our job better.

You’ve probably heard about online retail giant Amazon seeking to use drones to deliver packages. But that’s just the tip of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) iceberg. Universities want to fly them to conduct scientific research efforts. Energy companies imagine using drones to check on equipment in remote areas. Even realtors have talked about using drones to show their clients homes and neighborhoods from above.

KCRW's Saul Gonzalez records sound of the drone in flight. The station hopes to one day use the drone for journalistic projects. (Photo: Caitlin Shamberg)
KCRW’s Saul Gonzalez records sound of the drone in flight. The station hopes to one day use the drone for journalistic projects. (Photo: Caitlin Shamberg) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

KCRW sees our new drone as a journalistic tool. Using it to shoot video that could provide a bird’s eye view of places and events we cover and then posting that video on our website. For instance, maybe we’d do a story on the revitalization of the Los Angeles River and use the drone to show you show aerial footage of the waterway.

Simon Nielsen designs custom drones and helps new drone operators, like KCRW, get acquainted with their flying machines. He believes drones have a huge potential to bring you the news in a new way.

“There is no doubt in my mind, that every news station, will have one of these in their cars or trucks,” says Nielsen. It just makes sense. It is inexpensive, and the amount of information it provides is huge.”

So a big bright drone future for KCRW, right? Well, at least not immediately.

Like with a lot of other new drone owners out there, there’s a hitch in our plans to use our new flying machine, one we discovered after we flew our drone in the park.

Without an official thumb’s up from the Federal Aviation Administration, which we don’t have, we’re not allowed to fly our drone anywhere outside. That’s because there’s one set of drone rules for hobbyists and another, far stricter one, for institutional operators, like KCRW.

“Because if you are on the clock, and you are outside flying it around, then the FAA wants you to get permission from them,” says Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska.

Hobbyists who own drones can fly them without special permission, as long as they obey current F.A.A. rules like not flying them above 400 feet and staying out of restricted airspace, such as the skies around LAX. But if you’re an institution, company or non-profit organization that owns a UAV you need special permission from the F.A.A. to fly it, even if it’s just to take a practice flight like we did in the park.

The distinction in drone rules between hobbyists and institutions can even trip up experts, like the University of Nebraska’s Matt Waite. He got a finger wag from the F.A.A. after one of his first drone flights.

“Because I thought that an educational institution did not fit into the “commercial use” area, so we tried to fly around using the hobbyist rule,” says Waite. “And we got a letter from the F.A.A. saying, ‘Nope!'”

But with lots of companies, universities and institutions eager to fly drones, the F.A.A. has been under pressure to loosen its drone rules, and it’s started issuing flight exemptions called “Triple Threes.” If you get such an exemption, you can start flying drones for commercial purpose

“The purpose of these Triple Three exemptions that the F.A.A. is granting right now is to be able to test and find out how best to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace,” says Ron Futrell with ArrowData, a Las Vegas based company that’s been granted an exemption to fly drones. In its case, to shoot video for television news clients.

But Futrell says getting an FAA exemption isn’t easy. Thousands of companies, institutions and people have applied, but only about 400 have been granted. ArrowData had to provide hundreds of pages of documents about the technical aspects of the company’s drone fleet and what kind of “public good” they hoped to fulfill by flying their drones. It then had to wait four month for the documents to be reviewed by federal aviation authorities.

But the F.A.A. says its best to be slow and cautious as it tries to figure out how to safely introduce small commercial drones into America’s already crowded skies.

And if a company or institution does get an exemption to fly its drone, some aerial activities remain strictly prohibited, like flying or hovering the drone directly over people. The means news organizations, like KCRW, can’t fly over very newsworthy events like marches or protests.

“So if you think about it, like a protest, you have a large group of people who are densely packed into a small area, and so if you put a device over their heads you are responsible for their safety,” says Matt Waite. “And if something goes wrong with your device and it crashes, somebody’s going to get hurt. So the FAA’s new rules are pretty strict about not letting you fly over people’s heads.”

Until we get official permission to fly it from the FAA, KCRW’s drone will have to stay on the ground.