MU, University of Nebraska journalism schools to seek drone permits

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 | 9:28 p.m. CDT; updated 6:35 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 25, 2013

ST. LOUIS — The journalism schools at MU and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln plan to ask the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to resume using aerial drones for news-gathering purposes, school officials said.

Even if that permission is granted, researchers fear that existing rules will severely hamper the ability of the flying robots to actually cover breaking news events.

The FAA ordered the universities in July to stop flying the drones outdoors until they obtain government authorization. Scott Pham, content director for MU's university-owned radio station KBIA-FM, said the school will apply for a federal permit known as a certificate of authorization. Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite has said the school also plans to seek the permit.

"There are so many unanswered questions about using drones for journalism that it hardly makes sense to stop now," Waite wrote in an open letter in response to the grounding of the drones.

Waite and Pham said they are optimistic they will eventually receive the permits, but are discouraged that the permits will restrict their ability to use the remote-controlled aircraft to gather news in a timely fashion. The permit requires applicants to indicate in advance where they wish to operate, which would make responding to breaking news impractical.

"We don't want to say that journalism is impossible, because that's an absolute that's pretty easy to disprove," Pham said. "But it's hard to imagine how it could be done."

The crackdown comes as unmanned drones move from the battlefield to civilian and commercial use. MU and Nebraska were relying on rules for amateur hobbyists' use of remote-controlled model airplanes, but the FAA considers each university a public operator similar to local police departments.

Under amateur rules, unmanned aircraft must stay lower than 400 feet and conduct flights away from populated areas. The more restrictive rules would require the universities to designate a smaller area of up to 2 square miles while providing proof of the airworthiness of each vehicle. Pham said one of the sites he is considering seeking approval for is the Columbia Regional Airport, located about 10 minutes south of campus.

In late October, drone researchers will meet in Lincoln for a drone journalism conference at the university. Participants include privacy, legal and ethics experts. The weekend event also will include an indoor drone demonstration.

Journalism researchers and their students were using the airborne robots to shoot aerial photos and video from difficult-to-reach news scenes. The Missouri School of Journalism program had produced stories on bird migration, archaeological excavations and the use of Missouri River water for fracking operations in North Dakota.

Pham called the FAA's certification process a "stop-gap measure" and an "extremely blunt tool" that draws little distinction between military drones and those now being tested by journalists, which he said more closely resemble "flying toys with an iPhone attached." He hopes the certification process will give way to more nuanced rules by 2015, the deadline Congress has set for the FAA to develop standards for commercial drone use.

"It's not just that we need to be filling out this paperwork to get back to where we were before," he said. "It's that the whole landscape has changed. ... If I was them, I would overhaul the whole thing."

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