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Drone Camera Tornado Coverage Raises Press Freedom Questions 143

Posted by timothy
from the you-may-only-look-toward-the-horizon dept.
retroworks (652802) writes "In the latest tornado and storm tragedy to hit the U.S.'s south and midwest, small drone cameras steered by storm-tracker and videographer Brian Emfinger gathered stunning bird's-eye footage of the wreckage. Forbes magazine covers the [paywalled] Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's speculation that Emfinger has violated FAA rules which prohibit commercial use of small drones. The laws, designed years ago to restrict hobbyists use of model airplanes, may conflict with U.S. First Amendment free press use. So far, nothing in the article says that the FAA is enforcing the rule on the media outlets that may pay Emfinger for his video coverage, but interest in the footage will probably create a business economy for future commercial drone use if the FAA does not act."
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Drone Camera Tornado Coverage Raises Press Freedom Questions

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  • by i kan reed (749298) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:15AM (#46888677) Homepage Journal

    The difference between taking a video with a drone and posting it on youtube, and a reporter taking a video and showing in a news report is essentially zero.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Wasn't there a case recently that decided bloggers were functionally identical to official journalists in regards to freedom of the press? (aside from that detail being obvious with the quality of the news these days)

      Still, freedom of the press does not mean that they can get away with arbitrarily breaking laws. A press pass does not mean the cop cannot give you a ticket for going 174 in a 35 zone, and it should have no bearing here. Either the FAA enforces its rules here, or it forfeits the authority to

      • Wasn't there a case recently that decided bloggers were functionally identical to official journalists in regards to freedom of the press? (aside from that detail being obvious with the quality of the news these days)

        As AC replies: what the court confirmed is that you ARE the press. All you need is a printing press (or a blog), and you're a journalist. There is no such thing as an "official", government-approved journalist. I think it's pretty easy to see what a dangerous road that would be.

        Having said that, though, I have my own question:

        Has everybody here forgotten about the very recent Federal court decision saying that the FAA is full of shit, and that their regulations do not cover citizen-operated remote con

    • wtf? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The difference between you catching a fish and cooking it for dinner, and a commercial trawler catching the fish and selling it to a supermarket works out about the same way. Around here (for Pacific salmon at certain times), sport fishing is legal, commercial fishing is not.

      The difference between you picking some wildflowers in a hiking park and putting them in your hair, and some corporation sending squads of migrant laborers to pick all the flowers in the park and sell them to florists... same thing.

      Vid

      • by chihowa (366380) *

        Wtf, indeed?

        The difference between the commercial and noncommercial things you list is scale. Many things that are allowed for individuals (sport fishing or picking wildflowers (which, by the way, is still illegal for individuals... the difference is in enforcement) are forbidden for commercial interests because the impact of large scale operations is more damaging. Disallowing commercial activities is easier than putting limits in place and ramping up inspection and enforcement for small operations.

        The pot

        • by chihowa (366380) *

          In case this is bugging anyone else as much as it is me, here's the close to that dangling parenthesis: )

          Ahhh, OCD soothed...

      • by barc0001 (173002)

        Every single thing on your list has one major difference. Fishing? Resource consumed. Wildflowers? Resource consumed. Videotape, resource (potential sales) consumed. FM broadcasting, resource consumed (spectrum. Your little micro FM might block someone else who paid for the spectrum). All of these are a thing because if a lot of people do it, the resources will be gone or severely degraded.

        Now, if I fly a drone and photograph me some tornado carnage and then post it on youtube vs selling it to a TV

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by timeOday (582209)
      There are only so many people with press passes. I think a valid concern is that there will simply be too many drones buzzing around disaster areas, creating hazards for rescue operations (especially helicopters and planes). Beyond the vicinity of airports, aircraft traffic has largely been handled by "everybody keep your eyes peeled and don't hit each other, mmmmkay?" But that is going to break down in the near future if there is a big increase in the number of aircraft, particularly small ones that can
    • by westlake (615356)

      The difference between taking a video with a drone and posting it on youtube, and a reporter taking a video and showing in a news report is essentially zero.

      The difference lies in commercial sale and distribution.

      The Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination was captured quite by chance by a man with an 8mm camera.

      On the morning of November 23, CBS lost the bidding for the footage to Life magazine's $150,000 offer.

      Zapruder film [wikipedia.org]

      That is $1,127,000, adjusted for inflation.

      It is the business of the pro to get the "money shot," whatever the event he is covering.

    • by BitZtream (692029)

      No, it isn't, and your ignorance is why there are rules to prevent people from doing it.

      Fewer morons who know nothing about what they are doing will do it if it cost them $500 and they can't make any money.

      Make it so you can make a quick buck on it and it'll bring out a bunch of morons with no clue what the risks are endangering peoples lives.

      The difference is staggering, but your short sighted viewpoint is pretty much the core problem. You think you know a lot more than you actually do.

    • by jklovanc (1603149)

      The difference between taking a video with a drone and posting it on youtube, and a reporter taking a video and showing in a news report is essentially zero.

      True but that is also different than a couple hundred reporters/bloggers flying drones over a disaster area trying to get the story and interfering with the actual rescue effort. If drones were officially allowed every news organization would have at least one and would want to use it on a big story. We already have a similar issue with helicopters that are very expensive to use. Bring that cost way down and the use will explode.

      That is the issue with commercial droned. They are very inexpensive and many co

  • by Anonymous Coward

    News helicopters have to follow FAA rules.

    • Probably because they're standard-size helicopters, not teeny tiny RC models.
      • by beelsebob (529313) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @11:00AM (#46889023)

        The point being made is that just because they have to follow FAA rules, does not mean that their first amendment rights are being violated. You're not allowed to fly big human carrying helicopters over there without the appropriate paperwork filed, and that doesn't violate your first amendment right. Similarly, meeting the right conditions to fly a drone does not violate them either.

        • by msauve (701917)
          Of course, flying a drone isn't Interstate Commerce, either - even if you sell footage to the local news.
          • Would flying a drone be interstate commerce even if you sold the video, which has nothing to do with the act of flying, to non-local news?
            • by msauve (701917)
              Huh? The act of flying was necessary to gather the video in question. But yes, whether obtained by flying an RC plane or taken by hand, selling it out-of-state would be interstate commerce. Of course, any powers the Feds might have to regulate that would be constrained by the 1st A.
              • You make it sound like selling a video captured using a Chinese RC model would be interstate commerce, merely because the model airplane was imported.
        • by LWATCDR (28044)

          Exactly. A news crew can not fly a VFR equipped airplane in IFR conditions, the can not fly an aircraft at FL1 at 300 nmph, they not fly an unregistered airplane, they can not pay a pilot to fly for them that does not have a commercial license.
          How is the drone rule any different than these rules legally.
             

        • While there is a First Amendment issue here, the government almost certainly wins.

          Time, place, and manner restrictions on first amendment activity are usually Constitutional so long as there is some rational basis for them. A reasonable time, place, and manner restriction with a public safety rationale would almost *never* be struck down.

        • by bigpat (158134)

          The issue here is the FAA is issuing rules not based on common rules for safely operating a small remote controlled aircraft, but based on whether or not the operator on the ground is getting compensated for his work. The FAA should issue safety regulations not restrict freedom of movement just so it can figure out ways to make more money for the government off of the commercial use of the airspace. The whole thing seems like an inherently corrupt way for the FAA to be operating.

          For the most part these mi

          • by Obfuscant (592200)

            The issue here is the FAA is issuing rules not based on common rules for safely operating a small remote controlled aircraft, but based on whether or not the operator on the ground is getting compensated for his work.

            The FAA has TONS of rules that are based on whether the pilot is being compensated for his work. That pilot you give $100 to for dumping your Uncle Ed's ashes out over the local forest he loved to hike and hunt in has a lot of rules that apply to him that do not apply to Joe Weekend Flyer.

            The FAA should issue safety regulations not restrict freedom of movement just so it can figure out ways to make more money for the government off of the commercial use of the airspace.

            What are you ranting about? Do you realize how little you have to pay the government to be a commercial-rated pilot? Do you think the FAA runs schools that they want to force prospective pilots through? Don't be silly. T

            • by bigpat (158134)

              Government usually doesn't make money from a regulatory shakedown, corrupt individuals do when they take bribes to circumvent the rules they made and enforce and/or they make money when they leave government to go into private industry and are rewarded for their "service" and their knowledge of how to make money in and around the corrupt system they helped create.

              When a rule is purely based on commercial use and has absolutely no safety justification, not even a remotely reasonable one, then yes I think an

              • by Obfuscant (592200)

                We are talking about for the most part glorified toys that any 13 year old can buy at the mall and take home and fly around.

                Don't be ridiculous. Those toys can't carry anything more than a few fleas and they stay aloft for a few minutes at most. If you can get them up higher than ten feet they'll be blown away by the wind. We're talking about commercial drones that have a payload capacity sufficient for professional grade cameras (at least prosumer grade), and a flight time of twenty minutes or more.

                To prevent news organizations from using those same toys to take pictures from the air

                The laws of physics prevent news organizations from using those toys to take pictures from the air, not the FAA.

                or to prohibit any other intended commercial use of aerial photography is about as perverse a use of regulatory authority as I've ever seen and does cross a line the FAA had never crossed before.

                Don't be ridicu

    • This was exactly what I was thinking. Does denying some reporter an FAA license to fly a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft anywhere they please for purposes of journalism constitute a First Amendment violation now?

      What happens when they want to fly in restricted airspace? Is that a civil rights issue?

      • by Obfuscant (592200)

        What happens when they want to fly in restricted airspace? Is that a civil rights issue?

        If the President for whom the TFR is being created is white and the reporter who wants to jump into a Cessna 172 to get some nifty aerial shots of him is black, yes. Of course.

  • by hsmith (818216) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:18AM (#46888701)
    The drone could have done if it crashed while filming a tornado. The deviation would be catastrophic
  • by OzPeter (195038) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:19AM (#46888707)

    Has any storm chaser captured video when deliberately flying a drone INTO a tornado? Now that would be a sight t see!

    • Just leave an inflated ball with a few cameras inside lying in its path. Much better that way, if nausea is what you're looking for in the video. ;-)
      • by Russ1642 (1087959) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:34AM (#46888819)

        Leaving something in the path of a tornado is very very very difficult. There was a documentary about doing that called Twister.

        • Leaving something in the path of a tornado is very very very difficult.

          Flying a, what, 20 lb toy directly into a natural phenomena that produces rotating winds of between 75 - 350 Mph [tornado-facts.com] is and even less tenable proposition. You'd be better off with the inflatable ball, as you might get lucky and have it swept up into the twister, presuming it's deployed close enough. Or maybe drop it from an over-flying aircraft.

          • by beelsebob (529313)

            It's likely that the best approach is actually a combination of the two – use a drone to position your camera in the path of the tornado. Then you don't have the usual problem of it being *really* dangerous to try and position the cameras there.

            • It's likely that the best approach is actually a combination of the two – use a drone to position your camera in the path of the tornado. Then you don't have the usual problem of it being *really* dangerous to try and position the cameras there.

              Aw, but the danger is half the fun of storm-chasing!

        • Right, and its totally safe in the "Eye" of the tornado. As long as you keep pace with it, you'll remain unscathed!

  • by Huntr (951770) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:21AM (#46888715)

    They don't want to pay him for the footage & don't want others to have the footage.

    Champions of Freedom and the 1A, right there.

  • What? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:25AM (#46888761)

    The laws, designed years ago to restrict hobbyists use of model airplanes, may conflict with U.S. First Amendment free press use.

    This makes no sense.

    Yes, the press has freedom, which means they can't be restricted by government in what they report.

    They do not, however, have carte blanche to ignore laws and safety regulations.

    Being told you're not allowed to operate a drone for commercial purposes doesn't mean your press freedom is being restricted. It means you cannot operate a drone for commercial purposes due to safety regulations.

    Has America completely lost its grasp of the difference between what you're "free" to do, and what is (and should be) regulated?

    I keep hearing conservatives whine about how their freedom of speech is being infringed because there are consequences to the shit they say.

    Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences. You're free to say it, but if the customers basically say "we're not buying your product" they're not cutting of your free speech, they're exercising yours. (Especially (mo|i)ronic since the conservatives are the first to call for boycotts and shouting down people who disagree with them.)

    The press bitching they can't do illegal things in the pursuit of news (which these days is whatever is most salacious to get ratings) is the same thing -- your press freedom doesn't supercede laws. You also can't commit murder, break traffic laws, kidnap, of commit a break and enter.

    • ^That about sums it up.

      Maybe some folks need to have a plane hit a drone and result in some real death before they get it.
    • Re:What? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MightyYar (622222) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:38AM (#46888845)

      Has America completely lost its grasp of the difference between what you're "free" to do, and what is (and should be) regulated?

      Many Americans have a skeptical view of authority, and I think that it is justified. For every regulation implemented for our safety, there are a handful of jackasses abusing the situation. Drone flights during rescue operations may very well be a hazard, and banning them during such operations probably has some merit. On the other hand, whatever law is in place to enact such a ban will invariably be abused to prevent someone from seeing "something they shouldn't" in the judgement of some bureaucrat.

      We see this all the time with some of these insane penalties for computer crimes that are inflicted on well-meaning hackers. Even when they end up causing some grief, we throw penalties at them which are meant for organized crime, large-scale financial fraud, and terrorism.

    • by v1 (525388)

      They do not, however, have carte blanche to ignore laws and safety regulations.

      I believe the "regulation" aspect right now is simply about the numbers. When you have a handful of amateurs flying quads around their local park or around their back yard or neighborhood, the risks of collision are minimal and the scope of the damage limited. Once it becomes profitable, you can get a sudden, substantial increase in risks to the public.

      Right now there are already quite a few people using quadrocopters etc for c

    • by stenvar (2789879)

      Being told you're not allowed to operate a drone for commercial purposes doesn't mean your press freedom is being restricted. It means you cannot operate a drone for commercial purposes due to safety regulations.

      If you can do it for non-commercial purposes but not for commercial purposes, that shows that it isn't "due to safety regulations".

      Has America completely lost its grasp of the difference between what you're "free" to do, and what is (and should be) regulated?

      The federal government has only authority

    • They do not, however, have carte blanche to ignore laws and safety regulations.

      How is it a "safety regulation" if I can do the same exact thing with a small UAV and it is legal as long as I am not getting paid in some way?

    • by MrTester (860336)
      Judging from many of the earlier posts it seems that what many Slashdot readers have lost a grasp on is the difference between the FAA and the FCC. Whether its a knowledge deficiency or a failure in Reading-for-Information I dont know.
  • by Bob9113 (14996) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:34AM (#46888809) Homepage

    speculation that Emfinger has violated FAA rules which prohibit commercial use of small drones. The laws, designed years ago to restrict hobbyists use of model airplanes, may conflict with U.S. First Amendment free press use.

    There is a pretty obvious difference between the right of press freedom and commercial use of drones; the commercial part. If the drone operator is getting paid, or under contract, or in any other compensatory relationship with the publisher, it is commercial use of a drone. If he is a hobbyist who happens to catch some interesting footage and lets the news media use it for free, it is non-commercial use. Commercial operation of drones is prohibited. The press is free to report on the footage, and free to display it if they can do so without violating commercial drone operation regulations.

    It strikes me the same as attempts to conflate advertising and commercial lobbying with free speech. Compulsory speech -- speech which you are obligated to make under the terms of a business relationship -- is not free speech. Trade is not protected speech. You have a natural right to express your views, but you do not have a natural right to pay others on the condition that they say what you tell them to say.

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      Are there areas where the "press freedom" rule trumps the laws that affect the ordinary public?

    • by msauve (701917)
      So, when a newspaper pays a printer to print their words - that's not protected speech? When CNN pays their anchors for reporting, that's not protected speech?
  • It is not illegal (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:34AM (#46888823)

    A judge invalidated the law not too long ago so there is no legal issue. http://www.theverge.com/2014/3/6/5479582/judge-rules-commercial-drones-are-legal-undoing-six-year-ban

    • by BitZtream (692029)

      No, he didn't invalidate the law. That article headline is worse than most slashdot headlines, and when you use the verge are your reference, you're wrong from the start.

      The judge ruled that the interpretation was too ambiguous to apply as it was written. That doesn't invalidate it, it just puts them back in court at a later date with a modified argument.

    • by jklovanc (1603149)

      The FAA appealed [faa.gov] and the decision is not in effect.

  • I'm fairly certain there was already a Federal ruling on using drones for commercial purposes and the FAA lost. Maybe somebody can find the source..

  • by advocate_one (662832) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:43AM (#46888883)
    from private pilots operating small planes and helicopters as drones are stealing their "business" opportunities...
    • by cdrudge (68377)

      Do small planes and helicopters often attempt to fly over tornadoes? I would imagine that any type of plane, private or commercial, would actively avoid any type of storm cell that could or is producing tornadoes.

    • First complainant is automatically volunteered for the business opportunity of flying a helicopter into a tornado.
  • by QuietLagoon (813062) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @10:49AM (#46888933)
    The Freedom of the Press is not an absolute right. If it were absolute, then a reporter could break into my house anytime he wanted in order to get a news story.

    .
    Only when this case makes it to the Supreme Court will we know whether drone usage in these types of cases are legal. Until then, there will be lots of discussion.

  • or the law of rules. In those halcyon days of old, when a new tech came along, the government rightfully ignored it. When the tech started to cause problems or started to make serious money they would step in and make sure that the interest of the 'people' were regulated. Now we have tons of unregulated business models and fewer unregulated personal freedoms.

  • Please forgive my ignorance, but the laws governing RC aircraft basically consist of a flight ceiling and line-of-sight requirement, right? I.e., 'keep the thing below X feet and make sure you can see it?'

    Presuming that's the case, and knowing that there are crap-tons of fire towers in the region, do you think it would be legal to stand atop one of the (normally 60-100 feet tall in this part of the world) and pilot the craft from there? You'd have a helluva sight range that way.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by BitZtream (692029)

      No.

      The rules are (short version of legalese)

      Fly by line of sight. (They get too small to fly more than a mile away)
      Stay below 400 feet AGL ... ABSOLUTE GROUND LEVEL, the distance between the aircraft and the ground below it must be less than 400 feet, not operator level.
      No commercial use (this was added in 2007 to prevent a maelstrom of idiots with RC planes doing shit for money, and is the main arguing point right now)
      Do not fly within X number of feet of buildings or Y number of feet of people. I forget

      • Thanks for the info, I was hoping someone in the know would come and dispel my ignorance.

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        Do not fly within 5 miles of an active airport or helipad,

        Here is the actual circular [faa.gov];

        Do not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface. When flying aircraft within 3 miles of an airport, notify the airport operator, or when an air traffic facility is located at the airport, notify the control tower, or flight service station.

        You can fly close to an airport but you have to tell them. There are many RC clubs that fly from unused runways at open airports.

  • Many rules are ignored / not enforced in disaster areas. This can go both ways - for example, your freedom of movement may be blocked by police enforcing evacuations, but the people looking for survivors generally don't worry much about one way streets or the laws of trespass. (And, yes, this certainly includes commercial activities, such as insurance adjusters.)

    My guess is that the FAA will ignore this, as long as it doesn't cause problems or get egregious.

  • I fail to see the issue.
    People have a very strange def of freedom of speech, which was originally intended to allow printed press to be delivered with out consequence or government oversight. The inability to legally fly drones does not prevent you from capturing footage by the commonly use news helicopters or placing your camera on a boom and pushing it over a fence.

    This is like saying trespassing laws violate freedom of speech or maybe locks. I mean those pesky locks. What about all those barricades on

  • If I follow a woman around and snap pictures of her through her windows, I'm a stalker. If she's in the public eye for *whatever* reason and I tell the cop I'm going to sell the pics to the Enquirer, that makes it OK. No one would have a problem using drones to survey farmland, but what happens when there's a network of drones in the air tracking the movements of every citizen and that database is sold to the the government?

    This is something we need to get worked out quickly before the abuses start.

  • became a reporter or was selling his video footage to news outlets, he might be able to resume looking for buried earthquake survivors with his drones.

    Fundamental conflict between safety and reporting here.

    I think reporting is going to lose but maybe we'll end up with reasonable altitude and geographical limits* on drones instead.

    * i.e. under 250' and not within a few miles of active airports or heliports.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Flying anything has nothing to do with freedom of the press/speech. Neither does driving a car. If a reporter gets pulled over for DUI while reporting on a story and is taken into custody, it in no way infringes their 1st amendment rights, it doesn't exempt you from the law.
    What I don't understand is why they don't just get licences or clearance to fly the things like they have for their helicopters? Then they comply with the regulations and there's no issue. Seem to me that a bunch of reporting, like traff

  • "It's interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry."

    This is why I'm never too thrilled about all the 'storm hunters' late spring brings out to my state - it's all about getting lucrative footage and an adrenaline rush (some offer vacation packages, FFS). Precious few of them and their families live in harms way from tornadoes; to them, it's just a cool vacation where they occasionally have to drive around and past the remains of the natives. They only stop long enough to film the carnage and death,

You can do this in a number of ways. IBM chose to do all of them. Why do you find that funny? -- D. Taylor, Computer Science 350

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