FAA grounds Midwest journalism school drones

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration has temporarily grounded news-gathering drones used by a pair of journalism schools in the Midwest.

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were using the airborne robots to shoot aerial photos and video from difficult-to-reach news scenes.

The Columbia Daily Tribune (bit.ly/17NSTNh ) reported Thursday that the FAA ordered the universities to stop flying the drones outdoors until they obtain government authorization.

Scott Pham of Missouri’s university-owned station KBIA-FM said the school will limit its news-gathering drone test to the indoors. He suggested the school won’t pursue seeking federal permission for outdoor use.

“There is a process for flying over a natural disaster zone, one of the obvious positive uses, but it is a lengthy, difficult process that is not well-suited to journalism,” he said. “Indoor flying is still legal, and we will do that for testing.”

The crackdown comes as unmanned drones move from the battlefield to civilian and commercial use. Missouri was relying on rules for amateur use of remote-controlled model airplanes, but the FAA considers the university a public operator.

“Based on your university website, you are currently operating an (unmanned aircraft system) without proper authorization,” the agency wrote in a letter dated July 10. “Operations of this kind may be in violation of the federal aviation regulations and result in legal enforcement action.”

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory called the notice sent to Missouri and Nebraska “very straightforward.”

“They have to comply with the same rules as everyone else,” she said

Under amateur rules, unmanned aircraft must stay under 400 feet and conduct flights away from populated areas. The more restrictive rules would require the university to designate a smaller area of up to two square miles while providing proof of the airworthiness of each vehicle, Pham said.

The Missouri School of Journalism program has produced stories on bird migration, archaeological excavations and the use of Missouri River water for fracking operations in North Dakota. Fewer than 10 students had signed up for a fall course that might now be canceled.

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