Remote-controlled aircraft, which have reached new heights in warfare and are auditioning as a possible new Amazon Prime benefit, are now evolving as many functions as one can imagine for flying vehicles. But for now, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), journalism by air is out of bounds.

Last week, the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane, Wash., showed on its website a minute-long video of the annual Polar Bear Plunge, in which hundreds of people take temporary leave of their senses and jump into the freezing water on Lake Coeur d’Alene on New Year’s Day. The video included aerial views taken by a small camera aboard a radio-controlled helicopter.

‘Not allowed’

Whether or not it was legal depends on who and why it was taken. The videographer behind the shot, Jesse Tinsley, said that the use of an unmanned aerial craft for this purpose was “not illegal, but currently in a gray area.”

The FAA disagreed. FAA spokesperson Les Dorr told news media that “if you’re using it for commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed.”

VentureBeat asked another FAA representative, Alison Duquette, if noncommercial journalism, such as public television or an amateur blogger, would also be banned. She replied that “public TV would be included” in the ban, and she added that “most people would consider a blog as journalism,” so apparently it’s not the money-making part that’s offensive to the agency.

This ambiguity is not unexpected, since the FAA is rushing to catch up with this Wild West of technology, ready for pioneers but with no clear boundaries. On the way toward governance, the FAA has to zip around many possible safety, privacy and noise issues that could result from even a limited number of drones let loose into American airspace.

Possible path to the skies

In November, the agency released a first draft of a roadmap for the integration of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into U.S. airspace, and it has been conducting tests at five sites around the country, all of them focused on technical, logistical and operational issues.

The FAA said it is hoping to soon release guidelines on the use of small UAS’s, but events on the ground, as it were, are moving quickly, including efforts emanating from at least two university-based Drone Journalism labs and a Professional Society of Drone Journalists. Last summer, the agency issued certificates authorizing the use of commercial drones for energy exploration in the Arctic, which it said represented a first step toward getting this whole thing off the ground.

Which gives hope to those of us who want VentureBeat to one day cover the International CES, including interviews, through a video camera- and speaker-equipped miniature helicopter.