CNN has another exclusive as it received the first waiver of its kind from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly drones over crowds. The news network announced on Wednesday that it received approval to fly a Vantage Robotics Snap drone up to 150 feet in the air over crowds and groups of people. Up till Wednesday, this was strictly off-limits, but it seems that the FAA has changed its mind. The safety features of the Snap drone may have played an important role in acquiring the approval as this drone comes with cages over its rotors to prevent injuries.  The drone only weighs 1.37 pounds and recent research has indicated that weight is an important factor in reducing the risk of injury.

Details on the FAA approval

Greg Agvent, CNN’s senior director of national newsgathering technology, said the waiver

“has a meaningful and practical application to our newsgathering.”

Commercial drones weighing up to 55 pounds are generally allowed to fly during daylight hours, within sight of the pilot, and while avoiding people not associated with the flight, i.e. do not fly over crowds. This was made possible as part of a comprehensive package of rules finalized last year, called Part 107.

The safety concern had always been that if a drone malfunction or loses the connection with the pilot it could crash or fly away and hurt somebody.

Mark Blanks, director of the FAA drone test site at Virginia Tech, which has been researching the severity of injuries from drone crashes and how to prevent or reduce them, said:

“There is no doubt this is unique and a first. CNN would have had to provide to the FAA a compelling safety case that demonstrated that this particular aircraft, if it were to fall out of the sky, would not hurt someone.”

So far the FAA has issued about 1,100 waivers for drone usage on a case-by-case basis. In response to the recent Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the FAA has also granted 300 authorizations to fly drones in areas where there might be manned aircraft.

The FAA stated:

“CNN received a waiver that permits news-gathering flights only in approved airspace using a drone equipped with enhanced safety features.”

FAA’s Pathfinder program

In 2015, CNN was chosen by the FAA to participate in its Pathfinder program, designed to use drones for newsgathering in urban settings. Later in 2016 the news network received a waiver to fly drones over people with the drone tethered to the pilot. CNN also received a waiver to fly small drones over people in closed movie sets and television programs.

Wednesday’s waiver is the result of two years of testing by CNN and Vantage. The Snap drone is a very light-weight at 1.37 pounds and its rotors are caged. It is also being designed to break apart in pieces when crashing. Further reducing the risk of injury.

Vantage’s CEO Tobin Fisher said:

“Vantage created the Snap for the purpose of safely capturing aerial video over people.”

CNN and Vantage said that the application to fly over crowds was based on whether the overall risks of the flight were reasonable, taking into account the safety features of the drone and test demonstrations. Blanks added that it is a significant step for the FAA to accept the “reasonable risk” approach as it factors in all aspects of a flight, instead of just the airworthiness of an aircraft. Blanks continued to say that:

“The FAA is starting to consider total operational risk as a valid means of ensuring safety to the public, and they’re doing that in order to enable new innovative things to happen like this.”

About the Vantage Robotics Snap drone

The team behind the Snap drone has been developing the aircraft for more than two years now. Safety has always been high on the list of priorities, hence the low weight, caged rotors and ability of the drone to break up in pieces upon crashing to reduce the risk of injury. The folding Snap also features a 4K camera on a stabilizing gimbal. You can pre-order them on the Vantage website for $899 and they will start shipping in December.

Specifications:

  • Silky-smooth 4k camera
  • Ultra-light gimbal
  • Smart battery
  • Auto ground avoidance
  • Modular design lets you extend capabilities over time
  • Precise position awareness
  • Magnetic breakaway architecture
  • Field-oriented control motor controllers
  • Dynamic geofence
  • Canted pods for absurdly tight yaw control
  • Control with smartphone, game controller, or DSM controller
  • Stream video files to your smartphone

 

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