SPJVPA16: Getting ready for drones to take off

By Marhesha Maldonado

Gary Gillam

Unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called drones, could be very beneficial to journalists covering storm damage, traffic accidents, fires and other stories. But the technology also raises important legal, safety and ethical issues.

That was the gist of a panel discussion at the VPA/SPJ Region 2 Conference held Saturday (April 9) at Short Pump.

Charles Tobin, a former journalist and now a media lawyer in Washington, D.C., noted that it’s illegal for news organizations to operate drones unless they have permission, called a 333 exemption, from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The baseline is the commercial use,” said Tobin, a partner in the Holland & Knight law practice and chairman of the firm’s National Media Practice Team. “The use of drones for money in the United States is banned.”

The exception is for organizations that secure a 333 exemption – such as Creative Dog Media, an aerial photography firm in Richmond. Daryl Watkins, who formed the company, was a member of the VPA-SPJ panel.

He said that to get a 333 exemption, an organization must have a licensed pilot fly the drone – a requirement that would be prohibitive for most news organizations.

But the FAA is considering rules that would allow people without a pilot’s license to fly a drone for commercial purposes as long as they pass a test and follow safety guidelines. The guidelines include keeping the drone below 400 feet and away from airports.

Tobin expects the FAA to announce the rules as early as this summer.

Gary Gillam and Jeff South, journalism faculty members at the Robertson School of Media and Culture at VCU, are hoping the school eventually can teach students how to fly drones.

Gillam flies drones to take aerial videos and has begun to build his own drones as well. It’s perfectly legal to do this as a hobby; the current law prohibits only commercial uses of drones.

“We’re looking down the road to the day when the bar for flying a drone for commercial purposes is lowered, and you wouldn’t have to be a certified pilot to fly,” South said. “We would like to see our students come out of school with that (commercial drone use) certification.”

The panel was moderated by Evan Jones, an assistant editor at The Southside Messenger who builds and flies model aircraft. He asked about the line between commercial use and hobby use of drones: What happens if a hobbyist shoots a video of a newsworthy event with a drone and then gives the footage to a newspaper or television station?

Tobin said that under legal precedent, the news outlet could use the video as long as it did not pay for or solicit the material.

“Journalists have illegally obtained materials by other people dropped in their laps all the time,” Tobin said.

Another topic was privacy: Some governments want to prohibit drones from flying over private property and taking photos.

“The privacy piece has literally been hyped up so much,” Watkins said.

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