Portland, Ore. (Reuters) - A U.S. media company said on Wednesday it wants to be among the first broadcasters to launch news-gathering drones once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues new policies governing the unmanned remote-control aircraft, with test flights beginning in Oregon.
Alpha Media, which owns close to 70 radio stations in U.S. media markets, intends to begin testing drones to gather video footage on highway traffic and concerts for its Portland radio station KXL-FM 101, once those new rules are in effect, executive vice president Scott Mahalick said.
"We've entered into an agreement with a drone manufacturer, and we'll be flying them in Portland, subject to the FAA's new guidelines," Mahalick said, adding the company would like to expand drone use beyond Portland.
The FAA currently bans most commercial drone flights, but is required by Congress to integrate drones into the U.S. airspace in coming years. In September, it loosened restrictions, granting exemptions to a group of television and movie production companies.
Another 159 companies have applied for commercial drone authorization, largely for non-newsgathering purposes, though the FAA can't estimate how long it will take to review these applications, said agency spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
Other media outlets have shown interest in drone use and regulation. CNN reported over the summer that it and a university would jointly study safe and effective drone operation.
Duquette said federal aviation officials were working to draft rules that would allow broader commercial use of drones weighing under 55 pounds (25 kg), eliminating the need for FAA approval, with the changes being implemented at some point in 2015.
Mahalick said Alpha Media may ultimately seek FAA permission for larger drones as well.
The drone industry has mushroomed in recent years with the arrival of small, inexpensive remote-control aircraft that can carry cameras, sensors or other equipment that makes them useful for a wide range of uses, from crop dusting to locating people lost in the wilderness to filming movies.
More than a dozen major U.S. media outlets this year joined a lawsuit challenging the FAA's right to regulate press use of drones, arguing that restrictions hamper the freedom of the press enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
An administrative judge agreed, but the case was then ordered to a full hearing, according to the UAV Digest, an online trade publication. A date for the hearing has not yet been set.
Reporting by Courtney Sherwood in Portland; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Sandra Maler