CNN Just Got Approved to Fly Drones Over Crowds of People

October 18, 2017, 6:30 PM UTC

The next time CNN needs video of hordes of protestors, it could send a drone to capture the footage.

CNN said Wednesday that the Federal Aviation Administration approved the news network to fly drones over crowds of people. Although CNN has similar FAA waivers that allow it to fly drones in unpopulated areas and inside closed enclosures, the new waiver represents a bigger step for the company as well as for the use of drones for commercial purposes.

Currently, companies must seek case-by-case approval from the FAA to fly drones over people’s heads, at night, and beyond the line of sight of their pilots. The FAA has granted some companies like CNN waivers allowing them to fly drones over people, but those waivers were limited, said Lisa Ellman, a Hogan Lovells lawyer who advised CNN.

The new waiver allows CNN to fly drones 150 feet above the ground instead of 21 feet, and the drones don’t have to be tethered to a physical object or person, which limits their flights.

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The new FAA waiver “will very much benefit CNN as a news gatherer, and the industry more broadly,” according to Ellman. For instance, CNN can now send drones to film footage of crowds at big, public events. But CNN must use the Snap drone built by Vantage Robotics and not other drones sold by companies like DJI. This particular Snap drone was designed for the purpose of flying over people and comes with safeguards like enclosed rotors, which are designed to ensure people won’t be hurt if they drones fall from the sky, Ellman said.

If companies were to obtain similar waivers, they could more broadly do tasks like inspecting homes for damage or areas that have suffered from natural disasters without fear of violating FAA rules. Such a waiver would also benefit companies like Amazon (AMZN) or Google (GOOG) that are exploring the use of drones to deliver goods to people in the U.S.

However, just because CNN now has approval to fly drones over crowds doesn’t mean that the news network can send the flying robots out to any location on a whim.

If a city or county, for instance, has conflicting local rules with the FAA that limit the use of drones over issues like a person’s privacy, they could presumably curtail CNN’s news-gathering missions using drones. That being said, “CNN would be aware” of the local rules prior to engaging in any such drone news-gathering missions, Ellman said.

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