CNN said Wednesday it has received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones directly over people, allowing the news network to potentially broadcast events live from a drone over crowds during protests, concerts, terror attacks, natural disasters, or accidents.
CNN called the approval an "industry milestone" because it is the first time the FAA has granted what's called a Part 107 waiver for unlimited flights over people.
Until now, the FAA prohibited drone flights directly over crowds, although there have been limited waivers for filmmakers and others in certain areas, if there was consent from those on the ground.
The approval provides an opening for other news organizations and industries to seek a similar permission.
"This is a waiver. It doesn't allow everyone with a 107 certification to do so," said John M. Robbins, coordinator of the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. "It opens a pathway, but it won't be something that's widely distributed."
CNN's small device, a Snap drone made by Vantage Robotics, will be allowed in a "diverse range of environments, including operations over open-air assemblies (crowds) of people, up to an altitude of 150 feet above ground," the cable news network said in a statement.
The drone weighs 1.37 pounds and has rotors made of "deformable material" designed to break apart if it crashes, to prevent injuries. CNN said the company and Vantage Robotics spent two years designing and testing the drone.
Current FAA legislation came out in June 2016, allowing more widespread commercial use of drones, such as for roof inspections and taking photos outside of crowds, up to an altitude of 400 feet, using aircraft weighing fewer than 55 pounds, and flying less than 100 miles an hour, Robbins said.
"This waiver signifies a critical step forward not only for CNN's UAS operations, but also the commercial UAS industry at large," said David Vigilante, senior vice president of legal for CNN.
The network said it has been working with the FAA since 2015 to develop safe uses of drones in newsgathering, particularly in urban populated areas. CNN received permission in 2016 to fly small drones over people if tethered, and most recently to fly over people for closed-set motion picture and television film.