FAA Grants Waiver Allowing CNN to Fly Drones Over Crowds

CNN has been allowed to operate drones in populated areas since 2015. Now it can fly drones over crowded areas.

In what appears to be the first-of-its-kind waiver, the Federal Aviation Administration has granted CNN approval to fly their commonly-used Vantage Robotics Snap drone over crowds of people outdoors, at altitudes of up to 150 feet. 

According to Fortune, when flying drones above people, at night, or beyond the line of sight, these waivers are usually granted on a case by case basis. 

According to TechCrunch, previous regulations allow for drones to fly in closed productions such as film shoots, or inside of buildings and unpopulated areas. This is essentially a landmark case of allowing a media company complete permission to bypass those restrictions, and operate their drones outside, untethered, and above people.

“This waiver signifies a critical step forward not only for CNN’s UAS (unmanned aerial systems) operations, but also the commercial UAS industry at large. We are truly grateful to the FAA for allowing CNN to demonstrate its continued commitment to safe UAS operations,” said David Vigilante, Senior Vice President of CNN’s legal department.

Traditionally, aerial crowd shots from an altitude higher than 21 feet are captured by helicopter, due to a somewhat illogical sense of safety precaution. This new waiver likely gives people the chance to consider the fact that if a drone happened to malfunction and crash, it would be far less damaging than if a helicopter did. This is what CNN called its “Reasonableness Approach” during its argument for loosening these drone restrictions. 

Regarding Vigilante’s remarks regarding CNN’s continued demonstration of safe drone operation, it appears that the 1.37-pound Snap drone has been securely piloted by CNN for the past two years, without major incident. The UAV is made of malleable material and is fitted with enclosed rotors, further demonstrating its safety.

The FAA chose CNN as one of three “Pathfinders” in 2015, to establish secure drone use methods in newsgathering in populated areas, according to the news network. This waiver was first granted to CNN in 2016, for a one-time, tethered drone flight over people, which was likely a strong demonstrable precedent for CNN’s legal counsel team of Lisa Ellman and Matt Clark of Hogan Lovells to use. 

“We are pleased to have worked with CNN and the FAA in achieving this important step forward for the FAA and the UAS industry,” said Ellman. This, of course, opens up a whole new set of newsgathering and storytelling possibilities for the news network, which Greg Agvent, Senior Director of National Newsgathering Technology and CNN AIR, is very excited about. 

“We are delighted that the FAA has granted CNN a waiver that has a meaningful and practical application to our newsgathering operations. We believe that this waiver is scalable and usable across industries, and therefore represents significant progress for the commercial UAS industry as a whole,” said Agvent

Allowing one news network to fly drones above crowds without having to be tethered, or limiting its altitude to 21 feet, may seem like a small victory, but it’s far more significant than that. This is a definite precedent that will most likely be part of the foundation for other media companies to do the same. If the continuous use of drones by CNN in populated areas goes well, it could mark the beginning of seeing UAVs by a wide swath of news networks during events of journalistic value or public interest.