The FAA has granted CNN a first of its kind waiver allowing the news network to operate drones over the general public.
UAS operations over people not involved in the UAS operation are generally prohibited by 14 CFR 107.39. Similarly, UAS operations at night, above 400 feet AGL or beyond the remote pilot’s visual line of sight are also generally prohibited. However, each of these prohibitions is waivable by the FAA in specific cases under 14 CFR 107.200 if the applicant can establish that the proposed operation can safely be conducted. The FAA has granted over 1300 waivers since the regulatory scheme was adopted in 2016. The vast majority of these waivers allow drone operations at night that would otherwise be prohibited by 14 CFR 107.29.
To make out a safety case for operations over people, FAA guidelines require the applicant to “provide data that demonstrates that when the small unmanned aircraft impacts a human being for any reason, whether due to an accident, incident, small UAS failure or malfunction, or remote pilot error, that the small unmanned aircraft will not cause a serious injury or worse.” CNN notes that its application was based on a “reasonableness approach” under which its ability to operate a UAS safely over people was determined on the totality of circumstances, including its safe history of operations, the UAS’ safety features and safety test data.
CNN had previously obtained a much more limited FAA waiver allowing it to operate UAS over human beings for the purpose of closed-set television filming and production where all participants had consented to the potential risks and all operations were conducted within a closed or restricted-access site.
The latest waiver is much broader. It generally allows CNN to operate UAS over the general public, including over crowds, up to an altitude of 150 feet AGL. There is no consent requirement or requirement that operations be conducted in restricted-access locations.
An important factor in gaining FAA approval appears to have been CNN’s proposal that its “over people” operations be conducted by a specific UAS, the “Snap,” manufactured by Vantage Robotics. While CFR Part 107 allows commercial users to operate drones weighing 55 lbs. or less, the “Snap” weighs less than 1.4 lbs., has enclosed rotors and is held together by magnetic connectors. If it collides with an object – – or a person – – it breaks apart, thus reducing the force of any impact and lessening the chance of serious physical injury. According to the manufacturer, the magnetic connectors allow the fragmented “Snap” to be reassembled within seconds.
The FAA waiver allows CNN to conduct UAS flights over people only with the “Snap.” No other UAS may be used and the “Snap’s” design may not be modified without FAA approval. In addition, operations may only be conducted in Class G airspace unless the FAA grants CNN additional airspace authorization in accordance with 14 CFR 107.41.