When Hurricane Katrina hit, it was difficult for reporters and camera crews to access some areas because of the flooding. That’s one such instance where an unmanned aerial vehicle, AKA drone, could help a news organization. But commercial use of drones is banned by the Federal Aviation Authority.

There are signs that could change. The agency has been working toward giving drones wider access to US airspace, though critics complain the process is taking too long. Just last month, the FAA said it will consider exemptions to the commercial use ban for seven production companies that have asked for waivers that would allow the film and TV industry to use drones for the first time.

“If the exemption requests are granted, there could be tangible economic benefits as the agency begins to address the demand for commercial UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] operations,” the FAA said. “However, all the associated safety issues must be carefully considered to make sure any hazards are appropriately mitigated.” The agency approved the first commercial use of unmanned aircraft on June 10 for energy corp BP and drone maker AeroVironment for aerial surveys in Alaska.

The NY Times, Associated Press, Tribune and several other media companies are arguing that the use of drones in news collection should be covered under First Amendment rights. While the debate continues, CNN has just set to work on a year-long joint research initiative to explore the use of unmanned aircraft in media with the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“We want to understand what’s available versus what we think our wants and needs are editorially. And figure out how to do that in a way that’s safe and acceptable to the FAA, but leaves us the flexibility we think we need as a news organization to cover events,” said David Vigilante, CNN’s SVP of Legal.

The research goes beyond the legalities, delving into the unmanned aircraft vehicles [UAVs] themselves. “These quadcopters now, I view them as entry-level products. I don’t want them to be the only thing that fuels our imagination about what’s possible,” he said. “The cameras you see now don’t have a lot of production quality. A lot of that has to do with the payloads of these smaller UAVs have. The holy grail for the news media is something that has high-definition streaming capability that can fly for an extended period of time.”

In addition to the university, CNN is talking to retired generals, manufacturers and others about what’s possible for UAVs. “For manufacturers to make something at a price point we can afford, for operators to go into business on their own and get the licensing they need… That’s why this is the very beginning of something that could be very neat and exciting.”

Georgia Tech’s help in this research is key because right now only public entities, such as universities, law enforcement or the military, can get a certificate of authorization from the FAA that allows them to fly UAV’s in the national airspace. Oh, and oddly enough, hobbyists seem to be exempt under rules for model aircraft—as long as it’s not for commercial use. Mike Heiges, principal research engineer at Georgia Tech, said one area of great concern is hobbyists collecting footage and turning around and providing it to media outlets. “We heard just a few weeks ago of somebody using a UAV to take video of a car accident. There was a Life Flight helicopter inbound to pick up the victims and the helicopter couldn’t come in,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing we worry about and want to educate people on responsible ways to operate UAVs in the national airspace.”

That’s part of Georgia Tech’s appeal in working with CNN. “We’re very pleased that CNN is taking this proactive approach and working with the FAA to do it properly,” Heiges said, praising the network for taking a responsible approach to UAVs.

Those stories you hear of companies delivering beer, dry cleaning or pizza by drones are all in violation of FAA rules, Heiges said, explaining that the FAA controls the airspace from the ground up. “When a UAV goes beyond your visual range, you can’t see other aircraft in the area so you run the risk of colliding,” he said. “These things are not light. Even the small ones weigh 8-10 pounds. Drop a 10-pound brick 30 feet, it’s going to hurt.”

Vigilante has no trouble rattling off a list of stories where drones could help with reporting: the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, accessing the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the meltdown of three of its reactors, and so on. “Several years down the road, the traffic helicopter may become a thing of the past and these lightweight vehicles that I think will end up being a lot safer can do the same thing,” he said.

Of course, the use of drones also raises privacy concerns. Imagine if paparazzi had drones at their disposal to chase Lindsay Lohan or the latest celeb newsmaker. “The privacy concerns are there with manned vehicles as well,” Heiges noted. “The risk with UAVs is the cost is a lot lower and they’re much easier to operate. And they can get into tighter locations… Plus, there’s a degree of anonymity involved with them. Manned aircraft have a tail number on them.” For CNN, Vigilante said standards are already in place that would apply to any kind of recording device, including UAVs.

CNN and Georgia Tech plan to share their research data with the FAA as it considers regulations that will allow for the safe and effective operation of UAVs by media outlets.

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