FAA: UNL lab needs permit to fly drones outdoors

2013-09-04T08:55:00Z FAA: UNL lab needs permit to fly drones outdoorsBy Kevin Abourezk, Lincoln Journal Star Midwest Producer
September 04, 2013 8:55 am  • 

A little solder and a hot iron, and the hexacopter Ben Kreimer is repairing soon will be back in flying shape.

But it will take significantly more time for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve a permit for Kreimer and his boss, Matt Waite, before they can fly their miniature helicopter outdoors.

"Now we simply have another step we have to take before we go fly," Kreimer said.

The FAA recently informed Waite, founder of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Drone Journalism Lab, that he needs a permit to fly unmanned aerial vehicles outdoors.

Waite started the Drone Journalism Lab in November 2011 as a way to explore the use of unmanned aerial vehicles as journalism tools. He also developed the lab so he and his students could research the ethical, legal and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft for reporting.

Recently, Waite got a lesson in aviation regulations.

In a July 10 letter, an FAA specialist informed Waite that he needed a certificate of authorization to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle outside since he was a public employee. The FAA sent the University of Missouri's Drone Journalism Program a similar letter.

Waite said he sees the permit as an opportunity to learn more about aviation regulations related to unmanned aerial vehicles.

"We're going to have to get really familiar with aviation regulations and how they work, how they're applied," he said. "This is our first best opportunity to do that."

He said the FAA became aware that the Drone Journalism Lab was using miniature helicopters outdoors without a permit after seeing a video Waite posted on YouTube. The October 2012 video - shot by the Drone Journalism Lab and the UNL NIMBUS Lab - showed the drought-stricken Platte River.

The video garnered more than 10,000 views.

Waite said the process for applying for a permit to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle outdoors typically takes at least two months. Only a public agency can request such a permit, and even a public agency can't fly unmanned aerial vehicles in restricted airspace.

While other public agencies - like police departments and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials - also need permits to fly unmanned aircraft, the practice is antithetical to coverage of news events, which typically can't be anticipated, Waite said.

"Trying to divine a news event at a specific place months in advance is a skill I don't possess," he said.

However, he said, he's confident he'll be able to get the permit and plans to use it when he does.

The debacle has prompted Waite to host the first Drone Journalism Conference in Lincoln on Oct. 24-26.

He said he plans to invite experts on privacy, ethics, the law and journalism to discuss issues related to unmanned aircraft. He also plans to fly one of his miniature helicopters - indoors, of course.

"We have a unique position to be able to explore this for the industry before the industry is going to be able to do it themselves," he said.

Copyright 2015 Midwest Producer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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