How Drones Can Enhance News Coverage

By Katie DeFiore, Penn State University

When automobiles first came out, there was no infrastructure in place — no paved roads, no idea what side of the road to drive on and no regulations for speed and traffic patterns.

Dave Russell, a member of the Safety and Operations Branch of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration Office, said the drone is at the same place now as the car was then.

During the 2017 News Leadership Conference in Washington on Tuesday, three drone experts discussed best practices for drone use in news coverage.

“There’s more to flying a UAS than just buying the thing from Costco,” Russell said. “There’s a lot of danger one can do if one does this improperly.”

Here is a list of the top five things for news editors to know about drone use:

  1. You can’t fly a drone over people.

Panel member Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, said he has seen that in other countries that allow drones to fly over people, they require a parachute system in case of an accident.

“Where that bogs down here is: How do you certify those? How do you make sure they work every time?” Waite said.  He said he was skeptical that flights over people would be allowed for some time.

2. A member of the flight crew must maintain a visual line of sight with the drone at all times.

3. The person operating the drone for a news organization needs to be Part 107 certified (the FAA certification for commercial use of drones, including by news outlets).

4. As of now, state and local agencies can only regulate where you take off and land, not where you fly.

“In America, outside, as soon as you leave the ground, you’re in the air space, and the FAA is responsible for covering that air space,” Russell said. “The intent of Congress as we see it now is they would like to see a little more empowerment of state and local agencies to be able to do that.”

5. Always give a heads-up to local police if you are going to be using a drone.

“I early on learned that’s all well and good, teaching journalists about what their rights are, but if the police don’t know or don’t care what those rights are, it’s not going to matter,” said panel member Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association. “There’s both the privacy issue and the safety issue…we are all pioneers in the use of drones. Which side to put the steering wheel on is pretty much exactly that.”

Waite showed a video captured by a drone of a Rohingya refugee camp in Myanmar to exemplify the possibilities with drone news coverage.

“I wanted to show this because I think sometimes we think, oh my God, we can have our own flying robot.  This is the coolest thing ever,” Waite said. “What they are really good for is showing scale and scope. That shot right there is breathtaking, and it’s impossible to show this on the ground.”

Russell also mentioned that, as of now, there are a lot of heavy regulations that may restrict what is possible to cover with drones.

“I think as time goes on and we figure out how to safely integrate drones into the national airspace, we’ll be able to do much more than we can now in a manner that requires much less prior coordination,” Russell said.

Katie DeFiore is a junior at Penn State University.

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