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The Sky Is No Limit

Last Week, I attended the Federal Aviation Administration’s third-annual UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) Symposium in Baltimore, which the FAA cosponsored with AUVSI, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The conference is one of the biggest events for UAS in the country. It brings together a cross section of the industry and government leaders shaping the evolving regulatory landscape for drone operations.

The FAA also staffed a resource center with subject-matter experts on the variety of rules that drone pilots must know, such as the Part 107 requirements, waiver requests, how to contact your Flight Standards District Office, and other regulations.

Sinclair has one of the largest news drone programs in the country. The FAA released their Part 107 regulations on August 29, 2016, which govern the commercial use of drones; the next day, Sinclair’s first newsgathering drone took flight. To date, we have trained 75 veteran photojournalists to fly in 40 of our markets. They are all FAA-certified drone pilots and have collectively logged more than 5,000 flights.

We recently added 20 more pilots to our fleet, inching our total number of pilots closer to 100.

As such, we paid particular attention to a big announcement coming out of the UAS Symposium: the nationwide expansion of the FAA’s LAANC initiative. LAANC stands for Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability. It provides pilots with instant authorization to operate in restricted airspace.

Until now, drone pilots would need to wait weeks, or even months, for permission from the FAA to fly in certain areas or under certain circumstances. For example, KRNV in Reno, Nev., operated by Sinclair under a shared-services agreement, had pending waiver applications for restricted airspace authorizations awaiting approval for over three months. With LAANC they are able to receive instant authorization to respond to breaking news stories as they occur.

As newsgatherers, our instinct is to get to the story first, but as drone pilots, our priority is to be good citizens of the airspace.

LAANC allows us to do both. This authorization process has been a game-changer for our drone operations. Using software from companies including Air-Map and Skyward, we’re able to obtain instant flight authorizations.

One of the most important things I have learned in launching our drone program is to communicate with local law enforcement, first responders and FAA offices. As a part of Sinclair’s standard UAS safety protocol, we meet with local law enforcement and air traffic control officials prior to launching operations. Officials enter these meetings skeptical and concerned about safety and our interference in their operations. But they leave with peace of mind, assured that we will be a respectful and cooperative partner in the skies.

Our UAS program has allowed Sinclair stations to enhance the quality of the coverage we provide to our viewers. By working with the FAA through programs like LAANC, we’re able to continue to push the envelope on local news broadcasting and innovate beyond what has been the “typical” broadcast standard. As the industry continues to evolve, we look forward to being vocal advocates in the drone industry and to continue sharing fantastic videos.

Rose is the UAS chief pilot for Sinclair Broadcast Group.