Immediately after the string of tornadoes in Arkansas subsided last week, Arkansas photographer Brian Emfinger sent a drone into the sky equipped with a GoPro camera. The images the drone captured show the destruction in devastatingly close detail. At one point, viewers can see responders looking through rubble on the side of a highway and searching for possible survivors.
Until recently, however, the video footage — valuable for both documenting the storm and potentially helping locate survivors — would have been considered illegal by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
FAA spokesman Les Dorr spoke about the commercial use of drones in January:
“If you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” he said. “There is no gray area.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates aviation accidents, came to a different opinion last month. A judge ruled that the FAA had not made any legally binding rules against flying drones for commercial purposes.
In the case last month, the FAA attempted to levy a $10,000 fine on photographer Rafael Pirker after he used a drone to film a commercial for the University of Virginia. The NTSB court concluded that the agency had never regulated model aircraft, and that a 2007 policy notice that deemed commercial drone use illegal amounted to a voluntary guideline that holds no authority.
The agency has said they plan to appeal the decision, and they did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the past, the FAA has drawn criticism for what opponents say is inflexible regulation of drones that simply doesn’t keep up with the pace of technology.
The scientific community, for instance, has battled with the agency over regulations that have prevented sending drones to monitor tornadoes. The FAA requires flight plans be submitted 48 to 72 hours before a tornado hits, which amounts to an impossible request, according to scientists. The lack of adequate warning time, in fact, is the very reason they wish to study the tornadoes up close with drones.
And on April 21, less than a week before the Arkansas tornadoes, a Texas based search-and-rescue company filed a lawsuit against the FAA, on grounds that they are preventing missions that would be for “the benefit of our nation” by reuniting missing people with their families,” and that the same technology has been used for decades for recreational purposes.
Cease and desist letters have also been sent to journalism programs at the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri.
Congress has told the agency to come up with a comprehensive commercial drone safety and security plan by September 2015. In the meantime, videos like the one taken after the Arkansas tornadoes are fully in compliance with the law.
Check out the National Transportation Safety Board's decision below:
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.