Journalism Milestone: CNN Gets the OK for Drones Over People


CNN says it has become the first organization to be granted a federal waiver to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) over people in the U.S.

CNN worked with law firm Hogan Lovells to file an application for a certificate of waiver that would permit the organization to operate a Fotokite Pro – a small, tethered drone platform – over areas with unsheltered people who are not directly participating in the UAS operation.

The firm says CNN will use drones to gather and disseminate news and other important information in situations where it would be unsafe or costly to fly a conventional helicopter, including emergency and disaster situations.

As part of the waiver approval process, CNN says it demonstrated to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that its operations could be conducted safely.

According to Hogan Lovells, CNN’s success comes at a critical moment for the UAS industry: The rules for commercial UAS, Part 107, became effective yesterday. However, under the regulations, UAS flights directly over people are still prohibited unless an entity has received special permission from the FAA.

The law firm notes that some of the most promising applications of commercial UAS – including disaster response, newsgathering and aerial photography – require the ability to fly over people. Therefore, the firm adds, CNN’s success in securing a waiver to fly over people represents a huge step forward for the industry at large.

CNN recently announced CNN Aerial Imagery and Reporting (CNN AIR), a designated unit with two full-time UAS operators to fully integrate aerial imagery and reporting across all CNN networks and platforms, along with Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner entities.

CNN is also part of the FAA’s Pathfinder Program, which has been exploring how UAS might be safely used for newsgathering in populated areas.

“The use of UAS has huge promise for newsgatherers and consumers of news,” states David Vigilante, senior vice president of legal for CNN. “The ability to fly over people is a huge step forward and a necessary one as we cover the news where it happens. We look forward to continue to work in partnership with the FAA to move UAS policy boundaries forward for the industry.”

The Hogan Lovells team consisted of Lisa Ellman, partner and co-chair of the firm’s UAS practice, and Matt Clark, senior associate in the aviation and UAS practice groups.

“As this is the first time a company will be allowed to fly UAS over people in unsheltered areas in the United States, CNN’s victory is a significant milestone for commercial drone operators all over the country,” says Ellman, who also serves as co-director of the recently established Commercial Drone Alliance.

“It’s also a major victory for consumers of news – as this will allow CNN viewers to witness events across the country in ways that would not have been previously possible,” she continues. “We are thrilled with the FAA’s decision and hope the government and industry leaders capitalize on this momentum to see commercial drones safely and broadly integrated into our airspace.”

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