CNN Gets FAA Clearance to Test Drones

Cable news net hopes to help define drone journalism rules

Deborah D. McAdams

WASHINGTON and ATLANTA—CNN said federal regulators have cleared it to test newsgathering with drones. According to the cable news network, it entered into a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles—colloquially known as “drones”—into newsgathering and reporting.The agreement encompasses CNN’s existing research partnership with the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta. GTRI tests a variety of unmanned systems, including aircraft and maritime submersibles. In November, GTRI demonstrated formation flying by multiple drones. The Institute also develops technology that enables drones to fly themselves, from pre-loaded auto-pilot programs to full autonomy.

“We’re doing the highest level of unmanned vehicle autonomy and collaborative control,” said Lora Weiss, chief scientist at GTRI.

CNN said coordination with the FAA and GTRI has begun. It said the FAA would use the resulting data “to formulate a framework for various types of UAVs to be safely integrated into newsgathering operations.”

“Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high quality video journalism using various types of UAVs and camera setups,” said CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante. “Our hope is that these efforts contribute to the development of a vibrant ecosystem where operators of various types and sizes can safely operate in the U.S. airspace.”

Current FAA rules define drones as model aircraft and limit them to an altitude of 400 feet and a weight of no more than 55 pounds. They are also prohibited to fly within five miles of an airport unless otherwise authorized. Congress has directed the FAA to establish rules for commercial drone usage by September, 2015. In the interim, the agency had issued several waivers for their use in filmmaking, agriculture and real estate. CNN’s agreement represents the FAA’s first official OK for drone newsgathering, even though some stations are quietly experimenting with it.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said, “Unmanned aircraft offer news organizations significant opportunities. We hope this agreement with CNN and the work we are doing with other news organizations and associations will help safely integrate unmanned newsgathering technology and operating procedures into the National Airspace System.”

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