Drones, DAPL Protests And The FAA

By Patrick C. Miller | December 01, 2016

Most people watch the news with an uncritical eye. Unless a story is about something they care deeply about or that directly impacts them, they assume that what they hear or read is—for the most part—true.  

In my experience, the news is the news until you find yourself directly involved in a news story. When you go from being a casual observer to living in or near where a news story of national importance is occurring, you pay much closer attention to how the news is reported. You become much more focused on accuracy and the angles from which the media presents the story.

Those who live near a newsworthy event—and this includes reporters for local news media organizations—generally have a far better understanding of the facts, the background and the influences than reporters who suddenly take notice of the story and parachute in to cover it.

In the Internet age of social media, this is especially true when organizations pushing specific agendas on certain issues portray themselves as objective journalists when, in fact, they willfully shade the truth and ignore facts that don’t align with the positions they back.

Such is the case with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests going on in south central North Dakota just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. For about three months, the protests have received national and international attention as a classic David and Goliath struggle between a huge pipeline company, rich oil barons and a small Native American tribe protecting the environment and its way of life.

That is the story with which most people are familiar, but it’s not the reality that many residents in south central North Dakota are living. In fact, as the costs of the protests mount each day, every taxpayer in the state will feel its effects.

So what does all this have to do with UAS? Back in October, I blogged about how law enforcement officers at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests had shot at and damaged a drone being flown by protesters. I discussed the legal ramifications of the incident with a UAS attorney.

I will also note that as a writer for a sister publication, I’ve been covering the Dakota Access Pipeline and the permitting process for more than a year. I’ve lived in North Dakota for nearly 40 years. I’ve visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation numerous times and lived in the Bismarck area for 15 years. I covered law enforcement as a newspaper reporter and worked in the energy industry.

I also closely follow news coverage of the DAPL protests in the state. I can assure you that it’s far more detailed and accurate than what most people see from the national media or from organizations and individuals that deliberately slant their coverage to support the cause.

This week, some well-known bloggers in the UAS community wrote about the temporary flight restrictions (TFR) the FAA issued over the area in which the protests are occurring. They theorized that the restrictions were imposed as a means of preventing the news media from using drones to cover abuses by law enforcement. They claimed it was the same tactic the FAA and law enforcement used during protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

While there is evidence to support the claim that a TFR was imposed over Ferguson to prevent news media helicopters from covering the riots, there is no evidence to support that claim in North Dakota. It’s speculation only.

In any event, the issue soon became a moot point when the FAA made an exception for news media to fly in the restricted area as long as they properly coordinate with air traffic control and law enforcement. In addition, they must also follow UAS regulations.

Therefore, it’s now clear that the TFR was never aimed at censoring the news media. It was aimed at reckless and irresponsible drone operators who repeatedly demonstrated that they had no regard for safety, regulations or laws. The FAA is investigating these claims, as well as a claim that law enforcement violated federal law by shooting down a drone.

There is much more to the DAPL protest story than most of the public is hearing and seeing. People who live in North Dakota near the area where the protest is occurring know that protesters are illegally trespassing to destroy property, kill livestock and vandalize structures while using threats and intimidation to get their way. That explains why North Dakotans aren’t as quick to accuse law enforcement of misdeeds—drone-related or otherwise.