John Gonzalez

Determining the Dynamics of PEG Access Drones
By John Gonzalez

For quite a while now, drones have been an interesting and somewhat controversial topic. They first became entrenched in our culture with the advent of unmanned military drones. Ethical issues aside, these machines are an absolute technical marvel, representing years of aeronautical research and engineering. Perhaps it was these military-focused models that initially caused drones to seep into the consumer world, giving rise to the subject of this blog post: the commercial drone and its uses in community broadcasting.

Commercially-purchased drones have been gaining in popularity in recent years, which has in turn led to a reduction in price. For a couple hundred dollars, your organization can employ the use of a drone that can be fitted with a camera for recording video, or spend a bit more for a drone that already comes equipped with such a device right out of the box. From there, encoding that digital video content through an IncodeX Vier™ or UltraNEXUS-HD™ from a PC is the only additional required step to broadcast aerial footage directly to your PEG station or VieBit™ streaming solution. For the first time ever, getting high-quality aerial shots is affordable enough for PEG broadcasters or private organizations to take advantage of.

Over 1,300 businesses have already received permission from the FAA for commercial drone use. This includes farmers monitoring crop growth, as well as a number of real estate agencies getting extremely valuable aerial shots without having to pay for expensive helicopter fees. This emergence of new and exciting technology is just begging to be taken advantage of by community-based broadcasters. However, before racing to the computer and ordering one of these unmanned photographers, it’s best to first research limitations.

You’re probably going to need FAA permission.

Unfortunately, filming with a drone in any sort of public sphere is potentially going to require an OK by the FAA. This point seems a little scary at first, but thanks to a recent focus on revising FAA regulations for drones, the administration has begun making case-by-case evaluations of drone use. In their own words: “By law, any aircraft operation in the national airspace requires a certificated and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval.” This language is a little antiquated, as it was devised before drones were even conceptualized. Revisions are currently in the works, but until then, the FAA is willing to work with private drone users by providing a couple of different certifications.

Depending on the use of the drone, FAA permission differs. If you won’t receive compensation for the drone’s shots in any way, shape, or form, then Special Airworthiness Certification (SAC) is the way to go. This allows you to fly in any non-restricted area as long as the drone footage isn’t for commercial use.

If your PEG channel or private organization receives any sort of funding or sponsorship revenues that could potentially be considered related to your recorded drone footage, it may be best to apply for a Section 333 exemption, which allows the FAA to review your intended use and determine whether there is any significant risk associated with that use. As stated above, over 1,300 private organizations have been allowed to use their drones for commercial reasons. Though this exemption will undoubtedly take longer to process than the SAC, it guarantees your drone footage falls well within the boundaries of the law.

Newsgathering? You may want to rethink that.

So, as I mentioned above, legislative language regarding drones is in need of a drastic overhaul. Luckily, the FAA is well aware of this and is currently revising said language; however, some older concepts can hinder your intended use of drone photography.

Currently, drone footage within the media falls under some fairly specific guidelines. Drones affiliated with a station are not allowed to gather news, or rather, your organization cannot send out a drone for reporting purposes if the pilot is affiliated with you in any way. This is not limited to paid employees, either; volunteers fall under the restriction as well. With that said, footage acquired from an individual not affiliated with the media outlet is completely up for grabs. Hiring an outside party that has FAA approval to get drone footage is perfectly legal. If your PEG station has a notable news-element and the newsgathering restriction is a deal breaker, there is still hope. It may be somewhat difficult to obtain, but the Section 333 exemption described above could potentially allow newsgathering should your organization make a good case for it.

Though it’s likely the FAA’s stance on this issue will be adjusted in the future (news organizations are already training for it), it may be best to leave your notepads and press passes at home for now.

Know where you can fly.

In case you haven’t already figured it out at this point, US air space is highly regulated. Regardless of your permissions, there are a number of areas you just won’t be able to fly in. Though special exemptions are possible, obtaining permission to fly in a restricted area wouldn’t be a very easy or timely process.

For obvious reasons, airports are no-fly zones, but it’s surprising that national parks fall under that category as well. That’s right, though taking a drone on a camping trip to Yosemite sounds like a fantastic idea, it’s very much illegal. Included in the no-fly zones are military bases as well as temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), which are situational restricted areas.

Keeping these categories in mind, there are quite a few areas your drone won’t be able to fly in. It’s certainly difficult to keep track of them all, particularly in regards to TFRs, which can basically pop up anywhere in the nation. Thankfully, drone enthusiasts all over are keeping track of this information. Mapbox has an interactive map that covers all of the no-fly zones across the United States. Merely glancing at that page before planning a drone adventure could save you some steep fines.

Consider liability insurance for big events.

Going along with the last section, you can’t just fly a drone anywhere. In addition to restricted areas, it’s risky business flying over public events. A 26-year-old teacher was recently arrested for doing just that when he crashed his drone in an empty section of bleachers during the US Open. When public safety is involved, permission for flying a drone is required at the very least. In most cases, especially if the event is being run by your organization, it may be smart to purchase drone liability insurance. Depending on the insurance company, drones largely fall under the same category as radio controlled aircraft of which insurance plans have been readily available for quite a while. While the FAA is still working on properly defining drone limitations, the insurance industry already has plenty of options set in place, many of which are very affordable. Obviously, having a skilled pilot is ideal when traversing a large event, but coverage is a preferred way to keep peace of mind should any damages occur.

It’s a brave new world for video. Drones represent some pretty significant changes in technology available to consumers. With ease of access and constantly improving affordability, drone video capture is a great way to get some fantastic shots for your PEG broadcasts. If you’re looking for further information on current drone limitations and restrictions, consider checking out Know Before You Fly, an informational campaign made in partnership with the FAA that strives to educate consumers on drone usage.

For information on encoding drone footage to a LEIGHTRONIX video server or VieBit streaming solution, contact our sales representatives at (800) 243-5589. Be sure to check on the LEIGHTRONIX blog in the future as commercial drone usage and legislation progresses. You can be sure that we’ll be covering it.

John manages the daily operations of the LEIGHTRONIX Technical Support team and coordinates software and firmware testing and releases. He also troubleshoots analog and digital video systems, provides software support, and handles TCP/IP networking.

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