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The FAA banned drones from flying at the Standing Rock oil pipeline protest

Drone footage of clashes with police at the campsite have gone viral.

Boston Globe / Getty Images

This weekend the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction over the Standing Rock oil pipeline protest in North Dakota, banning all aircraft except those flying in support of law enforcement. The FAA will make exceptions for journalists as long they get special approval beforehand.

Drones have been used to capture footage of police clashes with protesters attempting to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is being built a half-mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and would cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe — the tribe’s main source of drinking water.

Earlier this month drone footage of protesters being sprayed with water cannons in freezing weather went viral, but it was taken before the FAA ban. Now drone videographers are not allowed to collect aerial video of the ongoing protest at the campsite until Dec. 2, when the ban lifts. The FAA requires journalists to go through a process to get approval to fly a drone during the ban, yet it's hard to predict when a newsworthy confrontation between police and protesters will occur. No requests from media have been granted yet, according to an FAA spokesperson.

While the FAA issued rules in August for commercial drone operators, the overall federal policy is still being written. Proposed rules for flying drones over populated areas will be open for public comment this December before being finalized by the FAA next year.

There’s no doubt that unmanned aircraft technology has become a powerful tool for journalists, who have used drones to document refugees landing in Greece and to spark an investigation of a meat-packing plant in Dallas, for example.

This is the second temporary flight restriction the FAA has placed over the area. The first was in late October in response to local law enforcement complaining that a drone pilot “flew at a helicopter in a threatening manner,” meaning the drone operator was breaking current FAA rules. Yet the flight restrictions are a blanket ban and also apply to drone operators who act according to the FAA rules to collect aerial video.

A similar flight restriction was placed over Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 during the protests surrounding the police killing of Michael Brown to keep news helicopters from flying overhead, according to tapes obtained by the Associated Press.

Here’s drone footage from September of the Standing Rock campsite, where protesters have been present since March.

Correction: An earlier version of this article did not include details about provisions for media drone operators to coordinate with the FAA before flying during the temporary flight restriction.

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