Navigating cautiously: Tentative drone journalism

May 4, 2017 01:30

By Henry H. Perritt, Jr. and Eliot O. Sprague, RTDNA Contributors

In the nine months since the FAA issued its final regulations for small drones as Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, television stations around the country have started using drones to cover news. Most of them are flying DJI Phantom 4s or Inspires, which have good cameras and basic performance capabilities adequate for the job. WGN-TV in Chicago is flying a DJI Mavic. These cost in the low thousands of dollars and can stay aloft for 20 to 30 minutes. “The ability to go live is key,” says ABC Vice President for Global Newsgathering Operations Brian Kennedy, “and we’ve had better luck shooting live with these vehicles.”

The norm is for a station to have one or two drones and to solicit volunteers among its staff photographers to attend drone training and take the FAA test for remote pilot licenses. “They’re just another tool,” says Chicago CBS2’s news director Jeff Kiernan. “In our twice-daily news conference, anyone can pitch a story, explaining how a drone could enhance it. Then drones are dispatched with photographers through the usual assignment desk process.” Contract news photographer and newsdrone entrepreneur Colin Hinkle agrees. “Drones are just like a GoPro or the standard shoulder mounted camera,” he says.  But stations are branding their drones so that their audience knows that they have them in their newsgathering arsenal. CBS2 in Chicago, for example, gives its "Drone 2," its own web page.

“We trust our news directors,” says Jeff Rose, Chief Drone Pilot for Sinclair Broadcast Group. “Drone pilot recruiting starts with them. They ask for volunteers among experienced photographers. We’re looking for experienced people to make good decisions about safe flight, people who already know how to tell a news story with pictures, and how to work with first responders to get their story.”

“What goes on the air is decided through the usual process,” CBS2 Kiernan says. “It’s a matter of good editing; whether drone footage goes on the air depends on how it adds to the story.” “It’s the movement, the flow, that makes drone imagery a compelling addition to storytelling,” says Rick Kramer, News Operations Manager at CBS2 in Chicago. “We have to do a different kind of editing to take advantage of it.”

Grass roots attitudes vary considerably. “When I go out on assignment, I almost always take my drone with me,” Tampa station WFLA’s reporter & drone operator Peter Bernard says. “I use my experience and judgment on whether a drone shot would enhance a story. Then the producer decides how to edit it.”

WSIL-TV, in southern Illinois, is a good example of how a middle market station can set up a drone operation. Under the leadership of production manager Tom Mann, the station selected three experienced production editors with field reporting experience and three experienced photographers to undergo training and take the FAA remote pilot test at nearby Southern Illinois University’s aviation program.

The station is an ABC affiliate but is independently owned. Station management has had complete autonomy to decide how it will use drone technology without interference or limitations from the network.

Selecting experienced personnel as the pilots in command reassures station management, because they trust them to make sound decisions in the field. As the training was going on, the station worked painstakingly with the local FAA to establish parameters for operations in the Class D airspace that overlays much of the station’s broadcast area. Under agreements with the FAA, station drones have free passage as long as they stay below 100 feet and advise the tower when they are likely to be operating near traffic patterns or runways. Air traffic control personnel have cell phone numbers for the remote pilot and station supervision. The station also consulted with law-enforcement and fire-suppression agencies and helicopter air ambulance personnel. The baseline concept was: ‘Here’s what we want to do; what are your concerns?’” The agencies were uniformly open-minded, glad to be consulted, helpful, and enthusiastic that WSIL-TV beginning to use the new aviation technology. In some cases they have asked for help, for example, gaining different aerial perspectives on a fire. The station’s drone personal feel welcomed by police, air ambulance pilots and air traffic controllers as new members of the aviation community.

Covering breaking news is not common, but WFLA’s Peter Bernard says, “I’d like to see us using drones more often—for breaking news--live shots to augment weather and beauty shots for his station.” WFLA has the most advanced ENG helicopter in their market which is used to cover breaking news. CBS2’s Kiernan and Kramer think of their Phantom 4 as available for “hot news,” and are using as such. But Sinclair’s Jeff Rose points out that it takes an average of about 30 minutes to survey a scene, preflight the aircraft, brief the crew, work with bystanders, and check with the FAA for NOTAMs. "We over communicate," CNN’s Senior Director of News Operations Greg Agvent says, referring to CNN’s practice of coordinating in advance with first responders when it flies. By the time the drone crew gets to the scene and then does all this, the breaking news may be over.

“They’re good for breaking news in a non-urban setting,” says Jennifer Lyons, news director for WGN-TV.

Mann and Bernard have found the reaction of the general public to news drones to be positive—interest and curiosity is the typical reaction by citizens who already have been attracted to a scene by a news van or by a news helicopter overhead.

Some of the earliest live coverage, for example by ABC7 in Chicago, occurred through contractors – Colin Hinkle and his Soaring Badger Productions in that case—and Chuck Spoto’s Satellite Technology Systems, which operates drones as a complement to its satellite news vans. Now, however, almost everyone is pulling drone operations in house.

Additional developments on both the regulatory and technology fronts will accelerate the pace of deployment. Part 107 was a significant step forward from the section 333 exemptions. Particularly helpful was elimination of the requirements for 24 to 48 hours’ notice to the FAA of each flight and for a visual observer in addition to the pilot for each flight. “With Part 107 in effect, the biggest advantage has been the removal of the 24 hour NOTAM requirement,” WFLA’s Peter Bernard states. Under Part 107, no application is required, as it was for the section 333 exemptions; certified remote pilots can fly registered drones within the rules as they see fit, consistent with their operational plans.

Current Part 107 prohibits flight at night and over people. The FAA has a web-based waiver process for granting exceptions to these prohibitions, but the process is slow and not very transparent. The FAA’s list of approved waivers shows only two news organizations, out of total of 318: one to CNN, and one to KOMU-TV. CNN’s is for flight over people; almost all the others are for night operation.

The FAA convened a special advisory committee in 2016 to advise it on how its rules should be modified to facilitate journalism's use of drones. Some kind of relaxation of Part 107 was expected by the end of 2016 and then at the January, 2017, Consumer Electronics Show. No such announcement was forthcoming. It is likely that the FAA is keeping its head down until it understands the Trump Administration's basic approach to civilian drones.

Eventually, the FAA will relax its prohibitions on night flight, flying beyond line of sight, multiple drones being operated by the same remote pilot, and flying over people. “We don’t need to fly over people to get a good shot,” Disney and ABC’s chief drone “imagineer” Cliff Wong says, however. “It’s better to be at an offset—45 degrees or so.” Sinclair’s Rose, and CBS2’s Kiernan and Kramer also think flight over people is not at the top of the operational priority list. “We wouldn’t do it anyway—for safety reasons,” says ABC’s Maria Stefanopoulos, Production Manager at ABC News Good Morning America, but “we’d like to make our own assessment of safety in particular situations,” adds ABC’s Kennedy. “We can’t do 70% of what we’d like to do in covering hot news because of the restriction.”

The Phantoms and Inspires that most journalists are using represent the current state of the art, which improves with each new model. Both vehicles, like their competition, come with various autonomous convenience and safety features built-in, such as autonomous hover, which causes the vehicle to stay in one place when the operator releases the controls, automatic return-to-home, follow-me, subject-orbiting, and subject-following modes. The operator can designate an object within the field of view of the camera and command the drone to fly a prescribed pattern with respect to that object. Major limitations remain, though; high winds and falling precipitation generally ground drones. Weather resistant professional grade drones are sure to become more widely used when prices drop.

Existing off-the-shelf drone equipment can be connected to cellular bonding communications devices to stream live drone imagery directly to the station. All of Sinclair’s drones are equipped with LiveU cellular bonding devices. WSIL uses TVU for its drones. Chuck Spoto’s NTP and Persistent Systems are working to demonstrate the advantages of more sophisticated mesh radio networking technologies for coverage of live events.

The economies of scale available to manufacturers of what started out as consumer products enable drone journalism. News stations in general are tight-fisted when it comes to their drone allowance. “Journalists are using the low-cost DJI and Autel hardware because it breaks the back of the argument I used to have all the time about whether we should use a helicopter for a shot at $15,000 or buy a drone for $15-to-$50,000,” Wong says. “The drone almost always wins safety argument, but the quality of its imagery was perceived as being worse. Now, the consumer drone technology has matured to the point that you can get perfectly respectable video recordings, although they still require considerable editing in the studio afterwards.”

The major vendors are beginning to modify their Swiss Army knife approach – something for everyone – and concentrate new features on specific markets. They have deep development pockets and thousands of engineers. They can keep the price much lower than small specialized vendors that are trying to sell more advanced military technology to the civilian market. DJI and its imitators already understand that TV stations want something that allows a good photographer to concentrate on what the camera is seeing, rather than worrying about flying the vehicle or manipulating the gimbal.

Some journalists think the two important technology developments are remotely zoomable lenses and tethers and, but others disagree. News photographers and TV viewers are accustomed to the storytelling power of zoom lenses ENG helicopters are equipped with long telephoto lenses not simply because of altitude restrictions but because they are able to handle the weight of a high quality camera. This affords them the ability to work a large geographical area quickly, capture a shot from miles away and provide viewers with a better visual experience. Long zoom capability provides a station with the ability to capture shots of an event that drones simply can’t: car chases, large scale hazmat scenes or blockade situations where drones could not get close enough to make up for their lack of zoom capability.

Wong says, “a drone doesn't need a 1 to 100, $150,000 ENG helicopter camera. That kind of zoom lens is only necessary because of the helicopter’s flying limitations. You can put a more modest lens on a drone and simply fly it around to get the different perspectives; you can come up close without blowing everyone away.” “Helicopters need big zoom lenses because they can’t fly low,” CBS2’s Kramer and Kiernan say. “For a drone, moving is zooming, and vice-versa. We’re looking for a sense of movement—moving in with a wide angle sweep.”

“Flying close is not always an option,” Stefanopoulos says, however. “The new zoom lenses are very important to us.”

The authors did a series of experiments with small drones and subjects playing the role of first responders. The “first responders” wanted an imaginary distance barrier of “personal space.” If stations get too close to a scene with their drones, the scene commander is likely to feel interfered with and will attempt to exclude the drones in any way possible, perhaps by persuading the FAA to establish a TFR. Many TFRs are of questionable legality, but few challenges occur. Maintaining a professional distance as a courtesy is likely to blunt the cinematographic advantages of “flying close.”

Until recently, zoom lenses were not available on mass marketed drones; now they are. Last October, DJI introduced a 30-times optical zoom lens for its higher-end cameras for $10,000. NTP’s Powerline offers a $3,500 kit for a 300 mm remotely zoomable lens that can be attached to DJI and Black Magic cameras. Such lenses may not replicate a helicopter shot from a height of 500 feet, but they enable a drone to stand off far enough away from a police lieutenant.

Tethers feed power and control signals up to the drone and tie it to the ground. A tether permits a drone to stay aloft indefinitely and improves safety by preventing flyaways-- a loss of control cannot cause the drone to impact the ground further away than the length of the tether. CNN has been an early proponent and user of tethered drones. Agvent believes tethered technology helps reassure everyone about safety. Chuck Spoto’s NTP offers a tether kit for DJI Inspires for about $10,000 and has received fifty orders. Disney’s Wong thinks that flying multiple drones at the same time to capture different shot angles and perspectives is more important than zoom lenses or tethers. It uses aerial photography for what it is best suited. A continuing static shot from a tethered vehicle is a step backwards. ABC’s Kennedy agrees. “We don’t see a lot of use for tethers,” he says.

Laughing, CBS2’s Kramer said the next step is for drones to be able to initiate their own tweets.

Sinclair, CNN, Disney/ABC, Chicago’s CBS2, WFLA, and WSIL-TV are blazing the trail and showing how drones can be deployed, according to careful plans that strike a balance among safety, regulatory risk management, and effectiveness in news gathering. ABC’s Kennedy and Stefanopoulos are very impressed with the rate of progress. “If you had asked two years ago whether we’d be this far along now, I would have said, ‘no,’” Stefanopoulos says.

Most stations, however, are being timid—exceptionally risk-averse. They have an exaggerated perception of risk, in large part, because decision-makers are completely unfamiliar with the aviation environment— Sinclair’s Jeff Rose and WFLA’s Peter Bernard have a leg up because they are private pilots --and because the general public is instinctively antagonistic to civilian drones. Station and network executives are members of the public.

Hundreds of thousands of small drones, similar to those being deployed by TV stations, have been flying for a couple of years without a single serious accident. All of the reported accidents resulted from extremely reckless recreational flying rather than careful commercial flying. A mishap with a news drone would become news itself, however. Stations are worried that any kind of drone incident would set back the long-run possibilities for integrating drones into newsgathering. These are not the swashbuckling days of William Randolph Hearst, the “Front Page,” Colonel McCormick’s megalomania, or the Lindbergh kidnapping trial.

Risk management is on center stage. Upper-level management is being quite cautious in deploying the new technology. Sinclair headquarters captures telemetry from every drone flight, showing dates, times, location, duration, speeds, and altitudes.

Nor has much innovation energy come from the ground up—from local stations. Cliff Wong expected more prominent innovative efforts by freelancers and stringers, but that hasn't happened, and now the networks and stations are wary of using outsiders.

Potential drone operators also may be reluctant. Union camera operators may be disinclined to take on additional responsibility without extra compensation. They may be concerned about the scope of station insurance protection if an accident occurs.

Disney’s Wong explains the institutional risk adversity:

“It's understandable when you think about the perspective of the senior decision-makers. I come in and demonstrate how the autonomous safety features work--most of the time, but not always; in realistic field conditions ‘return to home’ is often ‘run into a tree;’ it’s not like getting a shot of your wife running on the beach. Then you put on top of that insurance and legal concerns, changing regulatory limitations, and news stories about privacy, near misses with airliners and police helicopters, and people shooting at them with shotguns. It's easy for them to conclude, ‘I'm going to focus my energies on something else,” or “let's don't be in a hurry with this.’  News directors and station managers are not engineers, enthusiastic about a new technology, per se, pressing its limits just to prove what it can do. They view drones as just another tool that has to stand its ground in competition with other tools.

“The fact that there is no standard workflow for causes people to pull back from contracting out. Instead they are bringing everything in house, where they can control the details.

“It’s a serious piece of business,” ABC’s Kennedy says. “Our training sessions are sobering experiences for the participants; they’re surprised with how much they have to be concerned with. The hobbyists make it look easy; it’s not.”

ENG helicopters are safe—at least for the time being. “The effect on ENG helicopters?” CBS2’s Kiernan muses. “It’s too early to tell. Right now, we’re going to keep both tools.” “Drones can go where helicopters can’t,” Stefanopoulos says, but Kennedy notes that they can’t stay up longer than 20-25 minutes and can’t travel far to cover the next story.

In the past, WSIL-TV has sometimes rented helicopters from a local operator to cover breaking news. Photogs flying on the helicopter have to shoot with their own equipment. Mann expects that his drone program will eventually cover much breaking news that now requires a helicopter.

Eventually a set of best practices will develop, the technology will improve, the FAA will become more flexible, the pioneers will prove the power of the little aerial cameras, and everyone will pile on.


Messrs Perritt and Sprague are the co-authors of Domesticating Drones: The Technology, Economics, and Law of Unmanned Aircraft, published late last year by Routledge. Mr. Perritt is a law professor and former dean at Chicago-Kent College of Law, the law school of Illinois Institute of Technology. Mr. Sprague is an air ambulance pilot for MedLink AIR in La Crosse Wisconsin, flying for Metro Aviation. He worked as a news helicopter pilot in Chicago prior to flying helicopter air ambulances. Mr. Sprague is a helicopter flight instructor and commercial airplane and helicopter pilot. Mr. Perritt is a commercial helicopter and private airplane pilot. Both also hold FAA certificates as remote pilots for small unmanned aircraft.