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The FAA allowed CNN to fly a drone over crowds at extremely low altitudes. Its scope is within the UAVs. Only a specific model/type is allowed to operate on these flights.

Why is this model of drone allowed to do such a thing, and others not? CNN claims that it is to minimize the damage to people, if the drone crashes or something.

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    $\begingroup$ The FAA would regulate the kind of underwear you have if they could come up with a plausible rationale for doing so. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Oct 19 '17 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @TylerDurden: No, that's not true. I found FAA people quite reasonable, especially when compared with other bureaucracies. They have a mandate and act accordingly. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Oct 19 '17 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, Peter, I disagree. The absurdity that can erupt from the doors of a FSDO is stunning. $\endgroup$ – acpilot Oct 20 '17 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ Probably they asked for permission to fly a specific kind of drone and that's what they got. $\endgroup$ – immibis Oct 20 '17 at 4:16
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CNN has applied for and received multiple waivers for 14 CFR § 107.39 Operation over human beings as allowed by § 107.205 List of regulations subject to waiver.

  • Issued August 29, 2016 — This allows "Small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) operations over human beings in accordance with the CNN UAS Operations Manual, Fotokite Pro 1 Operator Guide, and Fotokite Pro 1 Specifications Sheet." It allows operation "over private or controlled-access property with permission from a person with legal authority to grant access" and prohibits operations over open-air assemblies of people.
  • Issued July 20, 2017 — This allows operations "conducted over human beings for the purpose of closed-set motion picture and television filming". Make and model of sUAS not specified, but all operations must comply with the operator's manual.
  • Issued October 13, 2017 — This waiver is granted for the Vantage Robotics Snap only, and allows "operations over all human beings (including Nonparticipants)". It also limits the altitude when operated over people to 150 feet AGL, as opposed to the normal limit of 400 feet AGL. I assume this is the waiver you are interested in.

The simple reason why only one particular model of UAS is allowed is that CNN only submitted that model for waiver and no others, and the FAA approved that.

This is a somewhat unsatisfying answer, but neither CNN's nor the FAA's reasoning is included in the text of the waiver itself. The rest of this answer is speculation on my part.

As can be seen on Vantage's specifications page for the Snap, the Snap is reasonably lightweight (1.37 lbs / 620 g including battery), has caged props, and has a high-quality camera. (The camera isn't a matter of safety, but it is presumably something a cable news provider is interested in.)

If a prop were to fail catastrophically, the cage would hopefully contain at least some of it, thus eliminating risk of a crowd being hit by sharp objects. The height restriction of 150 feet AGL reduces the potential for injury of a nonparticipant should the sUAS fall on them, and the prop cages prevent contact with moving parts.

I suspect that CNN applied for a waiver specifically for this model and the FAA approved it based on the following:

  • It's specific. The more general the application, the more likely it is to be rejected. If you know what you're working with, you can evaluate all the parameters and come up with a safe solution. If there are more variables, it's harder to reason about.
  • It has certain safety features as discussed above, which make it more suitable for flight over nonparticipants than some other models.
  • It's standard. CNN has a single platform to train their over-crowd operators on. Once again, this also has safety benefits, because the operators are extremely familiar with one model of unit, instead of broadly familiar with many different ones.
  • This particular model of sUAS had all the features that CNN wanted and that the FAA was interested in for this application. This may include such factors as weight, safety features, well-written operation and maintenance manual, and ease of maintenance. Additionally CNN may have liked the cost (the FAA wouldn't care about that).

The FAA maintains a list of all Part 107 waivers granted.

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Special permissions can be granted for platforms with sufficient redundancy.

For example, if you have 4 props and one fails you'll crash. But if you have eight (in the correct pattern) and one fails, you can abort the mission and land safely with minimal increased risk to those on the ground.

Same applies to batteries, autopilots, GNSS receivers, etc - if you have no single-point failures, it becomes safer to operate in risky locations (in your example, over people.)

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    $\begingroup$ That logical, but what is the related regulation supporting this claim? $\endgroup$ – mins Oct 19 '17 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed -- it is more likely that these are contributing factors that led to a allowed deviation from 14 CFR 107. $\endgroup$ – Marius Oct 19 '17 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Kyslik Engine failures happen even for adult aicraft with people on board. And remember youtube.com/watch?v=p9T6-KPFRq8 $\endgroup$ – Vladimir F Oct 19 '17 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ There is nothing particularly special or redundant about the Vantage Robotics Snap, which appears to be the model under discussion. $\endgroup$ – Dranon Oct 19 '17 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ "if you have 4 props and one fails you'll crash" - not necessarily $\endgroup$ – Bergi Oct 19 '17 at 22:40
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The most likely explanation is that CNN has a waiver from the FAA for certain operations. A waiver is a limited permission to deviate from the regulations and they're very common. In fact, for some operations they're required.

CNN is most likely operating drones under part 107. Within that part, 107.205 lists the regulations that can be waived and flight over crowds is one of them:

§107.205 List of regulations subject to waiver.

A certificate of waiver issued pursuant to §107.200 may authorize a deviation from the following regulations of this part:
[...]
(g) Section 107.39—Operation over people.

(By the way, 107.39 prohibits flight over people at any altitude.)

I suspect that CNN asked the FAA to grant a waiver to 107.39 to allow them to fly over the crowd, and the FAA allowed it but only if CNN uses a drone that has specific engine redundancy or other safety features. The FAA can include whatever conditions they like in a waiver.

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    $\begingroup$ CNN requested a waiver for operations using a particular drone type. The FAA approved it with conditions. The FAA did not dictate the drone type. (I suspect the FAA would get in trouble with manufacturers if they started recommending particular drone types.) $\endgroup$ – Dranon Oct 19 '17 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Dranon I reworded it. I intended "type" to be taken loosely, rather than being a specific model. Nice find on the waivers, by the way! $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Oct 19 '17 at 20:09

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