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New FAA Rules Allow More Commercial Drones In The Air


There could be as many as 600,000 drones flying overhead within the next year. The federal government has now put in place the long-awaited rules allowing businesses to fly drones. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: There are all kinds of ways businesses want to use drones - aerial photography, package delivery, bridge inspections. They could even be used to provide security. But until now, one huge and expensive requirement got in the way. Commercial operators needed a pilot's license or a special permit to fly unmanned aviation systems - but not anymore.


BRIAN WYNNE: With the small UAS rule now in effect, the commercial UAS industry is cleared for take off.

SCHAPER: Michael Wynne is president of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group for commercial drone users.


WYNNE: Whether it's aiding search and rescue missions, advancing scientific research, responding to natural disasters or helping farmers tend to their crops, UAS are capable of saving time, saving money and, most importantly, saving lives.

SCHAPER: Just what are the new rules for commercial drone operators? Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta explains.


MICHAEL HUERTA: It allows unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds to fly in sparsely populated areas up to 400 feet high and up to 100 miles per hour during daylight hours.

SCHAPER: And Huerta says the pilot approval process is greatly simplified, requiring a test of aeronautical knowledge. The FAA also created a process to allow rule exemptions for companies that can show they can operate drones safely. Already, dozens have been approved, most for flying at night. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.


ANTHONY FOXX: Over the next 10 years, commercial unmanned aircraft systems could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and by 2025, could be supporting as many as 100,000 new jobs.

SCHAPER: Additional rules allowing drones to fly above populated areas beyond the operator's line of sight at higher altitudes and with heavier loads are still being developed. Some of those could be in place by the end of the year. David Schaper, NPR News.


OK. So those new guidelines that David Schaper has just described, let's zero in on one company that could be affected by them. It is a media company, and it is one many of you have probably heard of. It is CNN. And let's turn to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik who's on the line from New York City. David, good morning.


GREENE: So CNN has a drone program.

FOLKENFLIK: Yes. CNN's been in a pilot program, so to speak, with the FAA in which it's been able to test out what the implications of this has been. And it's done some pretty extraordinary work. It's had shots of some of the devastation of Aleppo in Syria. It's shown what flooding has looked like of late in Louisiana. There was this one piece that Sanjay Gupta did from Flint, Mich., talking about households that have been affected by the water crisis there. And the drone then kind of lifted up above and showed you how many homes had been affected to make it clear this isn't just something in miniature but affecting an entire city and community.

GREENE: Wow. So, I mean, I guess this sounds like an obvious question but one that we should clarify. I mean, they're putting cameras on drones and just getting camera shots in places that, you know, you could potentially never go as a journalist like Aleppo, Syria, as you describe.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. It's taking you to places that you can't see. I mean, we're all familiar with helicopters. People have taken aerial shots. You've got satellite photos. This is an ability to do things a little bit more finely grained and yet to really hover and to send the cameras in motion so that you can get some sense of movement and some sense of space. It's a new form of visual narrative storytelling.

GREENE: What are the implications of this potentially?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you can get to areas that you can't get on foot. How many times have we seen a reporter standing somewhere that is near something that's happening but you can't really see what's happening? So there are implications as well in terms of how stations navigate. What's newsworthy? What are you going to do with this? There are limits, for example, the FAA have put in place. You can't have a drone directly overhead a person. Well, if you look this up, I'm told, in regulations - I spoke to Matt Waite who runs a program on this at the University of Nebraska. There's no specific definition for what that means to be directly over a person. There's going to be - have to be some fairly acute judgment involved here. I think people are going to have a lot of privacy concerns.

GREENE: Could a drone hover over my backyard if I'm someone of interest that the media is trying to interview or something and they're looking in my window?

FOLKENFLIK: Think of all the attention we've given to O.J. and what happened in California two decades ago, right?

GREENE: O.J. Simpson, the car chase, yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: The car chase and also the camping out there in front of his house when he was returning home, all that. Imagine that not only with helicopters but drones, a dozen drones, two dozen, three dozen, hovering overhead. It would be crazy. I mean, there are ways in which this will be used similarly to when particularly local radio and television stations first got helicopters that will be kind of marginal and fine grained. When I talked to Matt Waite, among others, they've said we've got to get through some of the bad uses of it to figure out what the good uses of it may be.

GREENE: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik speaking to us about the media and drones from his base in New York City. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.