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Sky Is the Limit for Drones in Radio

Ellman: FAA’s new regulatory framework is likely to expand the possibilities for UAVs

WASHINGTON — There may not be a full-blown invasion of unmanned aircraft buzzing radio station towers just yet, but broadcasters appear anxious to embrace these flying machines for more than hobbyist fun.

Lisa Ellman, right, chair of Hogan Lovells’ Unmanned Aircraft practice, talks with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell about the FAA’s requirement for drone operators to register their aircraft. So says drone advocate and policy expert Lisa Ellman, a former Obama administration official who is now an attorney with Hogan Lovells in Washington.

She counsels businesses and trade groups on drone issues — clients include the National Association of Broadcasters — and she is a co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, a trade group advocating for use of the vehicles. She will speak in December at the National Drone Show, produced by Radio World’s parent NewBay Media.

Ellman compares the state of the rollout of commercial drones in the United States to the early days of cellphones.

“The thought of checking email, doing our banking and scheduling our whole lives really didn’t add up right away,” she said. “In much the same way, I think drones will also carve out some very unique functions.”

Unmanned aircraft vehicle systems (UAVs or UASs) are piloted remotely by someone on the ground or loaded with a pre-programmed flight plan. Their use is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has put a new regulatory framework for drones in place. According to a 2015 Fortune magazine profile, Ellman helped craft policy documents that would pave the way for UAV integration and the FAA’s approval this summer of commercial drone use.

She told Radio World, “This is a new industry where there’s so much creativity and potential. The possible applications of drones are only limited by our imagination. We can’t even imagine yet what some of the best use cases are, but the integration of the technology will have a dramatic impact on our lives.”

Now she is working with media entities and tower erectors on how drones could be used in business applications. She sees broadcasters adapting quickly to use drones for tasks like newsgathering, traffic reporting and tower inspections; and she thinks airborne assets could have more broad applications.

Lisa Ellman speaks to a Hogan Lovells Partners Conference about drone regulations. “My sense is that radio broadcasters are very excited by the opportunity to use drones to gather video and images for their websites and social media. And video of promotional events, too. The potential for drones is moving forward so quickly. It’s really created a new tool for broadcasters to gather information and make it accessible to consumers.”

Drones have been popular for years, with many hobbyists taking up the pastime. Last year, in advance of the holiday season, the FAA required that any user of a drone of 0.55 pounds or more — recreational or commercial — must register it online. Since then, more than a half-million drones have been registered in a government database, according to the FAA.

When the FAA subsequently authorized commercial use, it unleashed an industry loaded with potential innovations, she said. Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, titled “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” now allows a range of businesses, including radio broadcasters, to use unmanned aircraft that weigh under 55 pounds. Drones must remain within visual line of sight of the remote pilot, be used during daylight hours only and may not fly over any persons not directly participating in the operation.

The maximum altitude for a drone is 400 feet. There is an exception that is crucial for broadcasters hoping to utilize drones for tower inspections: A drone can fly above 400 feet if operating within 400 feet of a tall structure, such as a broadcast tower.

Operators must pass a written FAA test and be at least 16 years of age. Ellman said broadcasters are likely to want to train members of their own staff to become drone operators.


Lisa Ellman is shown in a White House Oval Office photo with President Obama in 2014.
Credit: White House photo by Pete Souza Prior to the new commercial rules, a broadcaster had to go through a burdensome special exemption process to get a license to operate a drone for commercial purposes, Ellman said. Notably, the operator was required to hold a manned aircraft pilot’s license.

“The new commercial drone process includes a remote pilot certificate specifically for UAS pilots, which makes a whole lot more sense. It takes some study, but there are online FAA study guides to help,” Ellman said. “As you can imagine, there has been a huge demand for people to sign up to take the test.”

Ellman, a former policymaker at the White House and Department of Justice in the Obama administration, said broadcasters should consider several factors before deploying a drone, including safety, airspace and privacy issues.

“There are a lot of things broadcasters want to be able to do. The key is to make sure you are following the rules to make sure you don’t run afoul of the FAA. There are limitations, but radio broadcasters can petition the FAA for special use if they can prove their safety case, like flying at night or over people.” To operate directly over people, the FAA will require testing of the drone and data for approval, she said.

The broadcast engineering community is interested in the use of drones for infrastructure inspections, Ellman said, including broadcast towers.

“Use of drones will really increase efficiency for broadcasters and their tech departments,” particularly given the altitude exception around tall structures.

Ellman reminds drone hobbyists that there is sometimes a thin line between recreational flying and what the FAA could construe as commercial operation.

“This is where the new law isn’t very intuitive. For example, whether a flight is authorized or legal can be confusing. If you have a drone and you fly it near a tower site and take pictures, as soon as you use those photos to further the business interests of the radio stations or use those photos to enhance the radio station’s website, that changes the intent,” Ellman said. “It then becomes a commercial operation and therefore is regulated under Part 107 — whereas the same flight, if you had just been flying for fun, would not be regulated under Part 107.”

She also has received questions from broadcasters about tethered drones. “Sometimes broadcasters just want to be able to put a camera up in the air — tethered drones are great for that purpose, and many of these tethers actually provide battery life to the drone, which is helpful,” she said. But she emphasized that tethered drones are regulated in the same way non-tethered ones are.

Privacy issues remain a hot topic for legal advocates and the general public. She said the drone industry has released a set of best practices that would make for a good review for broadcasters as well (see a PDF The best practices recognize that newsgathering is strongly protected by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, they note that newsgatherers should operate under the ethics, rules and standards of their organization, and according to existing federal and state laws. And indeed, state and local governments are getting involved.


Lisa Ellman will be a featured speaker at the National Drone Show, produced by Radio World’s parent company NewBay Media, in December.

Held Dec. 7–8 in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and co-located with NewBay Media’s Government Video Expo, the National Drone Show offers video professionals two days of discussions and demos of UAV and video capture systems, management and delivery technologies and techniques.

Features include a Drone Flying Cage; a series of free sessions on the exhibit floor covering drone technologies and regulatory topics; and a day-long intensive educational program, the Advanced UAV Workshop, held Dec. 7. For information visit

A highlight will be the first annual D.C. Drone Film Festival, celebrating the work of drone videographers. Entries will compete for cash and camera prizes. Enter at

“While the federal government has been most focused on safety, the American public has been most focused on privacy. It’s become controversial. So you have states and localities that traditionally regulate local property rights and privacy matters. We’ve seen many cases of local ordinances being passed to limit drone use. So any radio station hoping to use a drone for any commercial reason really needs to know what their local communities are doing in regards to drone regulations,” Ellman said.

What’s next?

The drone regulatory framework will keep moving forward, Ellman said, with stakeholders waiting for the FAA to weigh in on several key issues. Ellman believes the FAA will consider by the end of the year a new rule that will allow flying drones over people. Meanwhile, Amazon, FedEx and UPS continue to push for regulations that will further enable package delivery.

There are many possible technical applications for drones in the broadcast setting, Ellman said. She notes that drones could someday lift equipment to tower crews for tower maintenance, perform infrared camera inspections of transmission lines, hoist RF test equipment for aerial measurements and even touch up a spot of tower rust with spray paint at 300 feet.

The burst of U.S. drone activity will continue despite the cautious regulatory approach by the FAA, she said.

“In addition, the Federal Communications Commission will have to settle some spectrum issues if we are ever to see thousands of drones in congested skies over urban areas.”

How are you using a drone? Emailradioworld@nbmedia.comwith “Letter to the Editor: Drones” in the subject field.

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