How to Comment to the FAA on Proposed Regulations – By Matt Waite

This is it, folks. The last week for public comment on the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) from the FAA. For my international audience, sorry, this week is going to be boring and I promise we’ll get back to regular programming next week. This week is all about how to comment on the proposed rules, and giving you a template for what you might want to say.

First things first, here’s how you file a public comment.
  1. Go to the NPRM on Regulations.gov.
  2. Click Comment Now. Don’t see it? It’s here: 
  3. Fill out the form. It’s three boxes, and two of them are your name. The big one is where you comment.
  4. Submit the form. Bask in the glory that is exercising your First Amendment rights as a citizen in the United States. Technically, you’ve used two of them: Speech and petition. That’s a good day.

There’s one tiny little thing I’m glossing over here: What should you comment on?

Well, glad you asked. I’ve been working on my comments for a while now, and I’m going to give them to you here. I’m giving them to you for two reasons: 1. I hope you find them helpful in crafting your own, and you’re free to copy, rewrite, reuse or do whatever you want with them for your own purposes. 2. I’m hoping you’ll give me feedback if you think I’m missing something or could do more if I just added something. I won’t actually file them until later this week in the hope that a few more eyeballs on them will help. So let me know what you think.

The basic structure goes like this: First paragraph, introduce yourself. Second paragraph, explain a little about how you envision using UAS. The rest, specifically comment on things you want to see.

Without further ado, here’s my current draft of comments to the FAA:

Via Electronic Filing
Docket Operations, M–30
U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE
Room W12–140, West Building Ground Floor
Washington, DC 20590–0001

Re:    Docket No. FAA-2015-0150; Notice No. 15-01
Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems
My name is Matt Waite; and I am a professor of journalism at a Midwestern land grant university. I am submitting these comments as my own.  I do not speak for my employer. I have been a journalism professor for four years now, and have been researching the use of UAS for journalism during that time. I have also flown UAS for three years, and my students have used UAS in India, Turkey, Kenya and Tanzania to safely produce news videos, photos and research data. Before I joined the faculty, I was a reporter in Florida and Arkansas and have utilized aerial imagery and remotely sensed data for investigative journalism throughout my career.

I believe UAS use holds great potential for journalists seeking to fulfill their First Amendment mission of informing the public. Journalists could use the devices to report on news events ranging from disasters to the environment to land development and many others. Journalists are ideal early adopters of UAS technology. Journalists have been using aerial platforms for journalistic purposes since man first took to the skies in balloons. Journalists, by their very nature, disseminate their work to the public. Journalists who use UAS are thus positioned to provide an excellent view of UAS capabilities.. Journalists also have a history of ethical practice, and ethical education, which would constrain UAS use to actions for the public good. For example, the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics commands journalists to “treat all subjects with respect and dignity” and “strive to be unobtrusive and humble in dealing with subjects.” The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics commands journalists to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.”

The framework for rules proposed by the FAA is a good start to providing journalists the ability to legally, safely and ethically report news via UAS. There are portions of the proposed rules needlessly restricting the use of UAS that I believe should be amended. The FAA should, with all due speed, adopt rules that would safely open the skies to commercial UAS and allow for development of this technology.

I support the FAA’s proposal to not require a pilot’s license for commercial UAS. Commercial UAS pilots should have some training, and a knowledge test is a sensible requirement. I also support the altitude and speed restrictions on these devices. For the vast majority of journalism applications, a 500-foot ceiling is more than sufficient.

Where I believe the proposed regulations could be improved to aid journalists in their First Amendment mission are as follows:

1. The Micro UAS rule: The first step the agency should take is to immediately adopt UAS America Fund’s Micro UAS rules. This will provide for development of small UAS use while the formal NPRM process  continues for larger UAS (http://www.kramerlevin.com/files/upload/UAS%20America%20Fund%20Petition%20Rulemaking.pdf). My support of the Micro UAS rule is twofold. First, under the specific rules of the Micro UAS regulations it would allow journalists, , to use  UAS immediately. The small size, low weight and low speed of these devices greatly decrease the safety risks involved in UAS operations, and the airspace restrictions keep them from areas with air traffic, further reducing the risks. Second, a micro UAS rule would allow for university research and education to go forward in a far more nurturing environment. Currently, state universities, are required to obtain a Certificates of Authorization (COA) to conduct research and education. However, the FAA does not view journalism ethics and news production practices to be “aeronautical” research nor a government purpose under the COA rules. The other option available is a 333 exemption, which all but eliminates student involvement because of the pilot’s license requirement. A micro UAS rule would catapult the US into the forefront of UAS research and industry development in one swift stroke.

2. The prohibition of beyond line of sight flight: Restricting all flights to line of sight (LOS) is unduly burdensome in many environments and situations where larger scale coverage will be required. The FAA should not categorically ban beyond visual line of sight flight BVLOS), but rather permit such flights under certain circumstances. For instance, in my home state of Nebraska, there are vast swaths of the state without controlled airspace and very little air traffic. Allowing for BVLOS in those places, with First Person View (FPV) equipment or additional spotters or a combination thereof, would allow for farmers to cover more ground with precision agriculture UAS, or for a journalist to map the path of a tornado that has recently passed. The FAA should consider allowing for flights were the Pilot in Command (PIC) may not have eyes on the UAS, but spotters in radio contact with the PIC do. A sliding scale, based on risk, should be applied. In many rural places in the US, FPV equipment may be sufficient to ensure that the flight is conducted safely. In more restricted airspaces, with greater population densities, more requirements for BVLOS flight are appropriate. However, a categorical ban on the practice unnecessarily restricts and is detrimental to many industries that can benefit from UAS operations.

3. The prohibition of night flight: The prohibition of night flight is unduly restrictive given the potential for night vision technology. There will be news events that occur at night that could be covered with UAS. I understand that a concern here is that other air traffic would have no chance to see an airborne UAS at night, and that line of sight will be difficult for the PIC. As such, night flight should be permitted with additional restrictions. For example, a lower altitude ceiling of 200 feet and no relaxation of any BVLOS allowances. At the very least, the FAA should consider adding civil twilight to the time where UAS flight is allowed. Photographers call civil twilight “the golden hour” because the light created by the setting or rising sun is ideal for photographic purposes. The UAS rules as stated would eliminate this very important time period for photographers with very little in the way of increased safety.

4. Overhead flight: My concern here is definitional. According to the documents the FAA has published regarding the NPRM, flight over people outside of the flight crew is “simply banned” but I can find no definition of overhead. If the definition is the literal zenith above an individual, my concerns are that it will be difficult for the PIC to determine where exactly that is at different vantage points. I believe pilots should not fly directly over people, especially large groups of people, for safety reasons. I believe the pilot should make a good faith effort not to fly directly over someone. However, under regulatory regimes in other countries and indeed under the FAA’s own 333 exemptions, that “overhead” flight has been limited to exclude flight anywhere from 100 to 165 feet from the person. I believe that is overly restrictive and will have the effect of banning flight in cities. A perfect example of how the difference between the two definitions of “overhead” would affect the news industry comes from NBC News using a UAS in Vanuatu. That Pacific Island nation was hit by a tropical cyclone on March 15 and NBC News used a UAS to report on the devastation of the storm. Video at http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/vanuatu-locals-describe–hell-on-earth–after-cyclone-pam-413998659736. In the video produced from the UAS, you can clearly see the PIC, at no time, flew over people. The pilot clearly laid out a course that took the UAS over buildings, keeping people walking on a road some distance from the UAS. You can see still photos from the video here: http://www.dronejournalismlab.org/post/114140178067/could-nbc-news-shoot-the-same-video-from-vanuatu. If the FAA’s plan is to “simply” ban overhead flight, then NBC News could use the same technique to cover a hurricane in Florida, for example, without a safety risk to people below. If the intention is to ban flight within 100 or more feet from any person, the very same video, which was clearly done with safety in mind, would not be allowed. I encourage the FAA to keep this “simple” overhead prohibition, but to keep it flexible to allow pilots to responsibly accomplish their goals while maintaining safety.

The NPRM is a much-appreciated step in the right direction for the integration of UAS into the national airspace. It is appropriately restrictive in places, and appropriately flexible in others. Compared to the current system of COAs or 333 Exemptions, it is a breath of fresh air. However, by implementing a few changes that that would not negatively impact on safety, the rules would allow more innovation and give many industries a powerful new tool to accomplish their goals. We share a concern for safety. No ethical journalist wants to be a part of something that puts people at risk. We very much want to take advantage of tools that further our First Amendment aims.

Sincerely,

Matt Waite

via dronejournalismlab.org

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