The Federal Aviation Administration has announced plans that would allow the government to monitor all drone operations – including aerial journalists’ flights – in real time.

The FAA today published in the Federal Register a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the remote identification of unmanned aircraft systems – drones – operating in almost all of the U.S. national airspace.

Since the FAA began permitting commercial drone flights in 2016, the federal intelligence community and state and local law enforcement have raised concerns about the potential for malicious and criminal drone use. The FAA issued the NPRM to address those concerns.

Under the proposed rule, most drones flown in the United States would transmit information identifying the drone’s owner and the location of the drone and its control station. Government contractors would collect, store, and make the information available on demand to the FAA and public safety agencies. The proposal would only exempt drones flown in specific areas that drone hobbyists will establish with FAA approval.

Drones transmitting the information by radio frequency and the internet could fly anywhere that current regulation permits. Drones transmitting the information by internet could only fly within 400 feet of the control station. The NPRM provides for a three-year deadline after enactment for all drones to comply with the new regulation.

The radio signals from drones would be accessible to the public. For drone pilots who want more privacy, however, the rule would permit transmission solely of a “session ID” consisting of a unique alphanumeric code.

Prior to issuance of the proposed rule, the FAA invited various stakeholders in the drone community to a series of meetings. News media representatives participated. The FAA appears to have taken into account some, but not all, of their concerns. For example, the media group proposed a requirement that the government articulate “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion” before accessing data about a news-drone flight. The group also proposed that the government maintain a log, subject to the Freedom of Information Act, showing when and why data was accessed. Neither measure appears in the NPRM.

Comments on the proposed rule are due to the FAA by March 2, 2020.

Ballard Spahr’s Media and Entertainment Law Group represents a coalition of 20 news media organizations involved in litigation and government policy development regarding drone regulation affecting journalists. The Group helps clients navigate challenging media law issues across all platforms and industries.


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