Drones, journalism, the FAA and the crackdown that isn’t a crackdown
By Matt Waite
Since last week when a Connecticut TV station employee tried to use a drone at a fatal accident scene and was reported to the FAA by the local police, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from reporters asking if the FAA is cracking down on drone journalism.
My answer: No. The reason you’re seeing cases like this popping up is because of the nature of journalism itself. Doing journalism involves being out in the public. And the end result of journalism is making what you’ve found public. That makes it really easy to spot when journalists use drones.
A little good news about journalists working with aviation regulators to use drones to cover a story. Australian ABC-TV used a UAV to cover Australia Day ceremonies in Canberra. They got clearance from Australia’s civil aviation authority, CASA, but were allowed to fly near government officials and while fighter jets flew nearby. Mark Corcoran at ABC emailed us some details as well as the photos.
ABC’s live national broadcast of the Australia Day Flag Raising Ceremony in the capital, Canberra on Sunday January 26, included extensive use of UAV vision as an integral part of the multi-camera coverage.
ABC TV Sport and Events Unit engaged a CASA-approved operator, Coptercam. The company had previously flown over the football and cricket for Fox Sports as the ‘FoxKopter’.
The military parade/citizenship event took place on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. The UAV was required stay 30m clear, over water, but significant none the less as:
The Prime Minister, Governor General and various VIP’s were in attendance, yet security was comfortable with the UAV presence.
CASA permitted the craft to remain airborne as RAAF jets conducted a fly past directly overhead – with about 500 feet separation.
The UAV deployed in Canberra was a slightly modified version of the custom built multi-rotor used for sports coverage as ‘FoxKopter’. Coptercam obtained a CASA exemption to the 30 metre rule, enabling them to fly to within 5 metres of people in the confines of a stadium.
They operate a three member crew; Pilot, camera operator, and director/flight co-ord.
A great proof of concept for all involved.
During the one hour broadcast, the UAV platform went ‘live’ 25 times, for sequences including close-up tracking shots of the flag raising and the twenty one gun salute from Army artillery.
ABC Events Executive Producer David Spencer said “Whilst a lot of what we wanted could have been achieved by a helicopter the noise and visual impact would have been completely unacceptable for the program – let alone the cost… The result was an exponential leap in the look and visual impact for the program.”
"A UAV was the only option for the shots we wanted. Prior to the availability of UAV’s with live broadcast quality links, we could only dream of getting these shots".
El drone took photos and video of voters.
Given the inevitability of commercial drone use in the U.S., media, industry and tribal, state and local governments must participate in the discourse on relevant federal policies and regulation.
Good list of issues using small drones for journalism will need to overcome in the US.
Beer delivery joins journalism in the club of things you can’t do under FAA policy.
Are there rules or aren’t there? Good question.
Drones and the beautiful game
While spending time in India, Drone Journalism Lab researcher and recent graduate Ben Kreimer recently had the opportunity to fly a DJI Phantom quadcopter and record aerial video at a soccer tournament in Baroda, Gujarat. He produced a video showing the range of visual perspectives that a UAV can capture while documenting soccer matches. At the time of posting, Kreimer’s video became one of the first published examples of competitive club soccer matches documented by a quadcopter or any UAV.
He also gave aerial images from the tournament, free of charge, to The Times of India, which became the first, or one of the first newspapers in the world to print UAV captured aerial photographs in their sports coverage.
They even ran his picture as part of the coverage.
Test site announcement: Eyes on the prize
By Matt Waite
Today, the US Federal Aviation Administration announced six test sites that “will conduct critical research into the certification and operational requirements necessary to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace over the next several years.”
How do these sites affect drone journalism? With the information released today, I don’t think it does for the most part. Here’s why I think that:
These test sites are all about figuring out how to “safely integrate UAS into the national airspace.” For the most part, that means big aircraft flying above 500 feet. “Big” in this case means larger than 55 pounds. The kinds of aircraft these test sites will deal with, at least on the surface, appear to be larger and fly higher than the vast majority of drone journalism applications. And the issues they are researching have much more to do with how unmanned and manned aircraft will co-exist in the skies.
The timing is all wrong. The FAA has said, and repeated today, that they will propose rules for small systems (meaning 55 pounds and smaller) early in 2014. Let’s call that the first quarter — sometime between January and March. The FAA said today that the first test site would be up and running in 180 days. That’s six months from now — June, more or less. So, by the nature of the timing, those two processes appear to be somewhat independent of each other. The small UAS rules are far more important for drone journalists than the big aircraft rules.
Now, given the descriptions of what will be researched at each site, I have no doubt that some of the questions that will influence how drone journalism emerges in the US will be examined at the sites. Examples:
- Alaska will research the “development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation”
- Nevada focuses on “UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements”
- New York “plans to work on developing test and evaluation as well as verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight”
All of those could influence drone journalism … or they might just deal with UAS integration into the national airspace, and the small UAS rules in the first quarter may be something else entirely. The truth is, we don’t know. It’s not clear from the FAA today.
But if you’re a journalist, the thing to watch is that first quarter proposal of rules for small systems. Those will have far more influence on the future of drone journalism.
Couple of things to note here.
1. Note the limits that the operator used. Max height was 100 meters at the most. It never went very far from the starting position, which means it was within the visual line of sight of the operator at all times (at least, it appears so). About the only thing that would cause regulators concern in other countries with UAV rules would be the flying over and near crowds of people.
2. Speaking of making regulators nervous: It’s worth noting that the BBC could not do this same story in the UK. Civil Aviation Authority restrictions in the UK would bar them from flying in an urban area like this, as well as flying over and near people outside of the crew’s control. Journalists will be contending with vast gulfs between what one country allows versus another for quite some time.