News managers may not see drones as aircraft and drone pilots as real pilots, but the FAA does.
It’s likely that many hundreds of the eventual thousands of licensed drone pilots will be journalists. Many of them are climbing that first hill this week and taking the test. The second big hill to climb is professionalizing operations
Today, with support from Knight Foundation, the Drone Journalism Lab is releasing its operations manual as an open source, Creative Commons-licensed document (PDF). We want the Drone Journalism Lab Operations Manual to give newsrooms across the United States and the world a foundation to work from. It covers everything from how to conduct a preflight briefing to what ethical issues you should consider before flying a drone.
The manual is a mixture of hard-earned experience in the field, requirements under the FAA’s Part 107 regulations, best practices for drone use, and methods that manned aircraft pilots use to fly airplanes. It defines three roles in each drone flight: The Pilot in Command, the only federally required role in the flight; the Observer; and the Journalist. The pilot is the responsible party under regulation. The observer is there to tell the pilot if something entered the area and is a concern. The journalist is there to ensure that what is needed for the story is being captured. A drone flight could have all three of these roles, or just the pilot. But that means the pilot is taking on extra work, which requires extra caution.
News managers need to be very clear on one thing: The Pilot in Command, by federal regulation, is the final authority on if the drone flies or not. The Pilot in Command holds the license, and will be the one punished by the FAA if something goes wrong. If a licensed drone-pilot reporter says no to a flight because it’s not safe, that’s it. End of discussion. It wouldn’t be the city editor or the news director losing a license or receiving a fine: It would be the pilot. Newsrooms with manned helicopters are used to this: If a manned helicopter pilot says no, that’s it.
The manual covers all of this—and much more. We’ve made it an open document so that newsrooms can contribute their ideas and experiences back to it. We’ve hosted the document on Github, which is a social code sharing website that also works pretty well for text documents. Unfamiliar with Github but want to get involved? Open an issue, and tell us what you think we need. An old hand at Github? Fork the document and go wild. We’d love your pull request.