Free Speech, Meet the Quadcopter

Drones fly at the Autel booth during the International CES Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.

Drones fly at the Autel booth during the International CES Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. John Locher/AP

CNN announced Monday it has come to an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration: The news network will be allowed to test drone systems for news-gathering.

"Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high-quality video journalism using various types of UAVs and camera setups," CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante, said in a press release.

The development is significant because currently the FAA does not allow Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for commercial use, save for a few exceptions for the entertainment industry andagriculture. This loosening of the rules could pave the way not just for aerial news-gathering but also for Amazon's proposed air delivery service.

In May, more than a dozen media companies banded together in a complaint against the FAA, saying the current policy has "an impermissible chilling effect on the First Amendment news-gathering rights of journalists." A few months prior, a judge on the National Transportation Safety Board overturned the rule. But the FAA appealed, and it was reversed. The FAA was supposed to release draft rules in 2014 for small unmanned aerial systems (drones weighing under 55 lbs.), but the agency is behind schedule.

"I think it's great that the Federal Aviation Administration is willing to work with journalists who wish to use remotely piloted aircraft systems," Matthew Schroyer, president of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, writes in an email. "However, what would really help journalists is the FAA performing its legal obligation to produce small UAS rules in a timely manner, which it has been unable to do."

How might a drone be used in journalism? The obvious possibilities include aerial shots that are usually supplied by helicopter—car chases and building fires come to mind. But CNN and the FAA will have to work out ethical boundaries. Will it be OK for paparazzi-types to take photos of celebrities via drone? What about flying the drones over private properties?

A 2013 paper out of the University of Texas (Austin) raised some of these concerns. "As previous research on surveillance technologies has suggested, UAVs equipped with cameras will further blur the public–private distinctions understood by earlier eras," the authors wrote. It will be important to strike the right balance.