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As new rules go into effect for commercial drone operations, here's what you need to know

Will a new regulation regarding commercial drone flight change how many drones we see in the skies around us?
Joseph Leahy | St. Louis Public Radio
Will a new regulation regarding commercial drone flight change how many drones we see in the skies around us?

Monday, Aug. 29, marked the first day that new rules went into effect regulating commercial drone operations in the United States. Could this change in rules impact the number of drones we see flying the friendly skies (and in our neighborhoods)?

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we heard from two people close to the matter — a professor who teaches drone techniques to journalists and a St. Louisan whose business relies on the ability to fly drones commercially. Their names are Matt Waite, professor at the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Ravi Sahu, CEO of AirZaar and organizer of St. Louis’ area commercial drone meetup, which has 190+ members.

The new rules going into effect are known as Part 107 and are administered by the Federal Aviation Administration. Until Monday, anyone flying a drone for commercial purposes (i.e. charging for services) was required to get a recreational or private pilot certificate. This cost thousands of dollars and required 40 hours of training in an airplane.

The new rule makes it so that people can operate a drone commercially after obtaining a “remote pilot certificate” pertaining to drone work and passing a background check by the Transportation Security Administration.

“[The regulation] will make it easier but I’m not going to say it is easy,” Waite said. “The aeronautical test takes a fair bit of study to pass. It’s not like news organizations are going to start stocking these in the newsroom. Licensing will take a little bit on the part of the person. Compared to the previous rules, it is much easier.”

The ease of use also brings up a slew of new questions about privacy, traffic and safety. Listen to the conversation below:

How are drones used commercially?

Sahu said that the public perception of commercial drone use lies with ideas like “Amazon Prime Air,” which would use drones to deliver products. That’s a pretty narrow view of what drones are used for, he said.

Ravi Sahu, CEO, AirZaar
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Ravi Sahu, CEO, AirZaar

“Drones are a fantastic tool for any business to incorporate major data insights,” Sahu said. “They’re used in construction, mining, landfill industry, energy and utilities and then a lot of disaster recovery on the humanitarian side. The commercial industry, which is adopting it at a rapid pace, is incorporating this as a tool. Just like you have a computer or trucks in your arsenal, they use drones as a tool.”

Sahu’s company, AirZaar, for instance, works with construction, mining and energy companies by providing software for drones to operate, acquire data and then analyze the data. Construction companies, for example, might want to monitor their construction sites and need updates on what supplies need refilling.

Another industry that has interest in drones for commercial use is journalism. Waite, who founded the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, said that interest in drone journalism is vast. At a recent drone journalism boot camp he coordinated, Waite said that journalists from small weekly newspapers all the way to international news brands wanted to get in on the drone game.

“They will be able to get perspectives they weren’t able to get before,” Waite said. “Drones are very good at providing compelling video of news events that are large in scale. There are a lot of examples from flooding in Louisiana right now. News organizations will use them at every car crash, house fire and community festival down the road. Whether they should is a whole other question. But it is coming in the near term.”

But what about privacy? And private property?

With the adoption of new technology come questions of regulation.  The FAA, both Waite and Sahu agreed, has been behind on regulating the use of drones. Compared to other countries, like Australia, Chile, England, Mexico and Canada, the FAA hasn’t gotten ahead of advances in drone technology.

“These are areas of law that have been fairly unsettled for a very long time,” Waite said. “There are two areas that are interrelated that come up: privacy and private property. The issue of how much airspace over your property you can control is not settled law.”

Matt Waite, founder of Drone Journalism Lab at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Matt Waite, founder of Drone Journalism Lab at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

No one really knows how much air above your property you control. In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case about a chicken farm that claimed airplanes flying over from a nearby airfield disturbed their chickens, but never set a distinct limit on how far above a house an airplane can fly. That means we don’t really know how low a drone would have to fly in order to violate a constitutional right.

“People have, I would say, an overblown fear that these devices are going to fly up to their windows and peer in,” Waite said. “They’re fairly large, have blinky lights on them and they are not quiet. If you think one will sneak up behind you, you ought to go see one fly. But people are sort of uncomfortable with the idea of a drone flying over their backyard and photographing them — not realizing airplanes can already to that from 500 feet up, or satellites. The fact is unless you’re a mayor and committed a triple murder in your backyard, nobody cares. My backyard is boring.”

Waite said that stalking laws, similar to what protect celebrities from paparazzi, are actually far more advanced than anything administrated by the FAA. Even the Part 107 rule is written leniently and with the idea that it will be reformatted as we learn more about how commercial drones operate in our lives.

“People have to take a longer view of this and realize a technology adoption curve goes like this: technology is introduced, we all freak out, everyone and their brother is sued, courts sort this out according to constitutional principles and by the time they do that, we’ve already moved on to something else,” Waite said.

Waite used the example of the Kodak Brownie camera in the early 1900s. People were worried about what it would mean that a person could walk with a camera to the beach and take photos of others. It wasn’t until several years later that modern notions of privacy laws came about, Waite said. By then, people had already moved on to a another type of camera.

Want more information on the commercial drone regulation? Read these:

The new drone rules: What journalists need to know

New rules for commercial drone use take effect today in the U.S.

Part 107 Is Here: What’s Next For FAA, UAS?

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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