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12

May,2016

Section 333 Loophole For News Media Use of UAS?

A recent legal interpretation put out by the FAA addresses Section 333 issues concerning news media use of UAS in the National Airspace System. Particularly, the issues being addressed are: 1) whether members of the media may use UAS for newsgathering; 2) whether the media can use pictures or videos collected by non-media affiliated UAS operators; and 3) whether UAS operators require Section 333 exemption if they wish to sell their pictures, images, or other information to media outlets. The legal interpretation highlights something everyone already knows…if the UAS operator is flying his or her UAS for commercial purposes, he or she will need to file for and receive a Section 333 Exemption.  This basic doctrine applies to news media, in that because the use of an unmanned aircraft by a media entity to gather news would be in furtherance of that entity’s business and because it would fail the “hobbyist” test under Section 336, the news media would require Section 333 Exemption. So, where is the loophole?

 

The legal interpretation (Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) Federal Aviation Administration, 2015 WL 3451735) highlights a pseudo-loophole for news media use of UAS. Essentially, news media outlets may use pictures, film, and/or other information obtained from a UAS operator so long as the UAS operator is “not affiliated with the media outlet.” The letter stresses that the FAA does not regulate what a third party does with UAS collected data; rather the FAA’s relationship is with the person operating the UAS in the National Airspace System. “A media entity that does not have operational control of the UAS and is otherwise not involved in its operation falls outside of the FAA’s oversight.” This begs the question…how does the FAA determine whether an entity is “affiliated with the media outlet?” Does this create an opportunity for news companies or any other type of company for that matter to gain the benefit of UAS technology as a straw-man, circumventing all FAA requirements?

 

Let’s say for example that Channel 89 News never files for or receives a Section 333 Exemption, never purchases a drone, and never employs a pilot to operate a UAS on its behalf, but every night on the 11:00 news, there is footage capture from a drone. Furthermore, let’s say John Doe Drones, LLC has caught on that Channel 89 News will pay a premium price for pictures and video gathered on popular news stories. Maybe Channel 89 instructs John Doe Drones, LLC to actively gather data on all trending stories. Is this technically being “affiliated with the media outlet?” Channel 89 News has no “operational control” over John Doe Drones, as the news media is not employing the drone company. The news media is not involved in John Doe’s operation – other than to say “bring us news footage.” They are not directing the drone company as to how, when, or where to operate the UAS.

 

At this point, this relationship between the news media and drone operator has strayed dramatically from the scenario the FAA has likely envisioned and approved. The FAA relationship between news media and drone operator is one in which a hobbyist UAS pilot is flying over his house and happens to catch a photo or video of a high speed police chase with his Parrot Bebop, at which point he sells his picture to the news for a few hundred dollars. The FAA would rubberstamp this scenario because the hobbyist was not operating his drone for money and the news media was innocently purchasing data that a hobbyist drone operator miraculously caught on film.

 

Despite the FAA’s intentions, the ambiguities in one’s “affiliation with the news outlet” and the news media’s “operational control” over the drone operator/operation leaves room for great interpretation. Primarily the ambiguities open the door for news media and potentially other types of businesses to reap the benefits of UAS technology without ever owning a drone or filing for Section 333 Exemption. So what’s the problem? That’s what drone companies are all about…providing aerial data services for other companies that don’t own a drone or wish to apply for Section 333 Exemption. Well, the interpretation says that,“if the individual’s takes the pictures or videos or gathers other information as part of a hobby or recreational activity, then a later decision to sell some or all of those pictures, videos, or other information would not change the character of the operation as part of a hobby or recreational activity that falls within the section 336 carve-out for model aircraft. No FAA authorization for that operation would be required. However, if the individual is conducting the operation with the primary intention of obtaining pictures, videos, or other information to sell, then the operation is commercial in nature and not part of a hobby or recreational activity.”

 

With this weak and ambiguous description of commercial vs. hobby UAS operation, there is a window for less than reputable UAS operators to argue that they never intended to sell their collected data. Rather, what’s keeping hobbyist UAS operators from actively gathering news data and then later deciding at some point to sell the data to the news media? In that scenario, the primary intention is not to sell pictures, videos, or other information — its to gather news footage. As a result, this creates a situation where neither the news media nor the UAS operator is filing for a Section 333 Exemption, but both are receiving the benefit.

 

While this loophole is a stretch, the FAA has created a potential slippery slope, as intent (whether to operate commercially or as a hobbyist) is a very subjective standard.  This article is just highlighting one more reason why UAS rules cannot get here soon enough. If you have any questions about Section 333, Section 336, or any other aviation or drone law, contact your drone attorney at The Ison Law Firm toll-free at 855-FAA-1215!

08

Oct,2015

Avoiding Civil Penalties for UAV Operations: Don’t Be the Next SkyPan International

As you may or may not know, the Federal Aviation Administration recently announced that it is expecting to fine SkyPan International, a Chicago-based drone company, a whopping $1.9 million for “endangering the safety of [American] airspace.” The announcement of this incredible enforcement action seems to be the FAA’s warning to the public that unauthorized UAV operations will not be tolerated. Many of us in the drone community were expecting this eventual crackdown on unauthorized drone use – but maybe not to this magnitude. Nonetheless, this announcement is coming at a curious time – right before the holiday season (during which the FAA expects that over a million drones will be sold). As such, everyone from Corporate America to Little Billy with a DJI Phantom 3 on his Christmas list, is shaking in their boots wondering if they will be the next SkyPan International – with a debt of close to $2 million. But don’t worry; if YOU employ some of the following precautions in your UAV operations, you can attempt to shield your pocketbook from the FAA and its civil penalty wrath.

 

The first thing to know is that the $1.9 million fine is the result of 65 unauthorized flights, which SkyPan conducted within New York and Chicago’s airspaces over the course of a two year period. Essentially, these were hobbyist flights because during this period, SkyPan did not have a Section 333 Exemption. So what does that mean to you? First, if you are operating your drone for commercial purposes, get a Section 333 Exemption now. Secondly, whether you are a hobbyist or commercial operator, you need to know exactly where/how you can and cannot fly your UAV. Thirdly, remember that while it is against regulations to violate certain airspaces and that you would likely be subject to penalties for doing so, it’s likely you won’t be the subject of a $1.9 million fine for a one-time accidental flight above 400 feet. It will all depend on where you are and what you are doing – it took SkyPan 65 flights over congested airspace to hit the $1.9 million mark. So, let’s go through each step of protecting yourself.

 

First, all commercial UAV operators must have Section 333 Exemption from the FAA. Let’s say that together: ALL COMMERCIAL UAV OPERATORS MUST HAVE A SECTION 333 EXEMPTION FROM THE FAA. What is a Section 333 Exemption? A Section 333 Exemption essentially gives an individual or entity relief from certain FAA regulations. For example, an individual seeking a Section 333 Exemption may request to be exempt from the following Federal Aviation Regulations:

  • 14 C.F.R. §91.121: which provides guidelines for the use of altimeter settings while operating an aircraft
  • 14 C.F.R §91.119(c): which provides that except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below an altitude of 500 feet above the surface. Furthermore, this section provides that an aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.
  • 14 C.F.R. §91.7(a): which prohibits the operation of civil aircraft unless it is in airworthy condition
  • 14 C.F.R. §§ 61.101(e)(4) and (5) which prohibits recreational pilots from receiving compensation for hire or providing flight services in furtherance of a business
  • 14 C.F.R. §91.151(a)(1): which provides that no person may begin a flight in an airplane under VFR conditions with less than 30 minutes of reserve fuel

As you can see, the Section 333 Exemption keeps commercial operators from having to jump through various FAA hoops. As such, if you are a hobbyist, you don’t have exemption from these regulations and must adhere to these rules…which SkyPan International did not.

 

Secondly, the friendly, blue skies are not the wild, wild west. A drone operator cannot switch his or her drone to the “on” position and takeoff to photograph the Empire State Building at 1,200 feet. No, instead, whether you are a commercial drone operator or hobbyist, you must adhere to certain altitude and area restrictions. For commercial operators with a Section 333 Exemption, the FAA will typically allow UAV operation up to 400 feet for aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds, operating during daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions, operating within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilots, and staying certain distances away from airports or heliports:

  • 5 nautical miles (NM) from an airport having an operational control tower; or
  • 3 NM from an airport with a published instrument flight procedure, but not an operational tower; or
  • 2 NM from an airport without a published instrument flight procedure or an operational tower; or
  • 2 NM from a heliport with a published instrument flight procedure.

As for hobbyists, the altitude and airspace restrictions are similar if not identical. According to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, a drone that is flown strictly for hobby or recreational must be:

  • operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization;
  • limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization;
  • operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft;
  • not flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower…with prior notice of the operation;
  • flown within visual line sight of the operator.

The general rule is to use common sense. Beyond that, if you are a hobbyist, make sure you stay within all Federal Aviation Regulations, especially those requiring altimeter and transponder equipment. If you study the SkyPan case, you will notice that the FAA specifically cites the company for flying within certain airspaces without transponder or altimeter equipment. Remember, if you are a hobbyist, you don’t have the leniency of someone operating under a Section 333 Exemption. Read up on the Federal Aviation Regulations and know the rules before you fly.

 

Everyone makes mistakes. If you operate your drone contrary to the above regulations, don’t panic – you likely won’t get hit with a $1.9 million fine. If you have any questions about where you can and cannot operate your drone or if you are already the subject of a FAA civil penalty or enforcement action, contact your friends at The Ison Law Firm. We are standing by to vector you through legal turbulence…call us at 863-712-9472 or e-mail to Anthony@ThePilotLawyer.com.

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