Dronalism – the use of drones to provide TV news footage – will be coming soon to a station near you.
Or maybe not. TV journalists, like many early adopters of drone technology, face resistance from a variety of sources. At Interdrone, the International Drone Conference in Las Vegas, Sept. 9-11, a panel led by veteran Las Vegas news anchor and sportscaster Ron Frutell explored the challenges, growing pains and future facing cutting-edge broadcasters.
Frutell was joined by Gary Buzel, an Emmy Award winning journalist, pilot and former police officer; Sally French, an educator and journalist whose work has appeared on CNN, the BBC, Forbes, and The Economist; and Parker Gyokeres, retired Air Force photojournalist and board member of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ).
Frutell first asked if broadcasters should expect any resistance to adopting drones.
Buzel volunteered that you should expect resistance from all sectors. “Management will be worried about liability, there will be legislative setbacks, and fire chiefs don’t want to see any drones around their operations. At San Diego 6, we’re using our drone mostly for feature stories or sweeps pieces. Eventually, we want to use it for news.”
Educators were also running into roadblocks, according to French. “We knew we could not use it commercially,” she admitted, “but we thought operating as a journalism class for an editorial purpose, we would be all right.”
French volunteered her class to help the local NPR station with a feature on a wildfire. “We worked with the fire department to show how close the fire got to the freeway,” she explained, “and the total extent of the fire. Shortly after it aired we got a cease-and-desist order from the FAA. We still talk about aero-journalism in class, but, no more flying.”
Gyokeres said the PSDJ was focusing on this as a First Amendment issue. “We’re in the process of getting our 333 exemption [an FAA exemption certifying commercial use] and are focusing on feature news.” He pointed out an additional challenge he’s run into: “Bystanders can’t yell at a helicopter pilot,” he said, “but they can yell at a drone pilot.”
Frutell asked whether journalists were losing the battle and why.
Gyokeres pointed to all the local jurisdictions creating new laws. “In Fergusson, Missouri,” he said, “neither the police nor demonstrators wanted drones around.”
Buzel said that he talked to the Mayor of Poway, a suburb of San Diego, about an ordinance forbidding all drone flights in the city for 45 days. “He looked me in the eye and said that they intended to selectively enforce the ordinance. In other words, it would be OK for a hobbyist to fly in the park, but they were not going to let TV stations fly. Local leaders are trying to use safety concerns as leverage to control the press.”
French explained that not every TV station has a helicopter. “People think they do,” she said, “but that’s not the case. It costs $1,600 per hour to operate a helicopter, so only the bigger [stations] can afford it. Ultimately, all stations will want drones because they are affordable.”
Gyokeres suggested that when you do get a drone, don’t make a big deal about it. “Don’t say, ‘Here’s our drone footage.’ Just put up the footage.”
Buzell said that at his station that’s what they did. He called it a “soft launch.” “Ten years ago in San Diego we had six stations with their own helicopters,” he said. “Now we have none. We use a pool system from a commercial service. Everyone says it’s their own chopper, but it isn’t.”
He continued, “Drones can be the great equalizers among TV stations. Billings or Yakima can put up a drone and look as good as L.A. or San Francisco. Lots of TV stations will be looking for trained pilots.”
Everyone concurred on the importance of training for pilots and journalists.
Frutell shared how six months ago he went to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and asked if he could teach a course on drone journalism. He laughed and explained, “They said, ‘No, but you can teach a course on sports journalism.’”
The panel was happy that the day before, California Governor Brown had vetoed SB 142, a bill which would have made it practically impossible for anyone to fly a drone in the state. The legislator who sponsored it, however, said she planned to re-introduce it next session. Reaching out to the community with an educational effort was a tactic the panel agreed could help halt the anti-drone luddites.
French emphasized the importance of establishing ground rules in advance with first-responders about where you can stand and what the fire department, for instance, expects of you. She noted that helicopters cover fires all the time, but they are linked to the air traffic control system. Buzel said that is why in San Diego they always have an air-band radio with them.
Gyokeres agreed that once the fire has started, it’s too late to introduce yourself to the fire chief, but he was optimistic. “In L.A., the fire department likes drones,” he said. “It’s probably because of the film industry’s use of drones that people are just more used to them and are better educated about them.”
He continued, “We don’t know where the technology is going. Three years ago we were using Wii remote controls to steer drones.” He smiled and said, “Maybe three years from now, we’ll be controlling drones with implanted neural chips.”
Frutell summed things up, pointing out that, in theory, by the end of next year the FAA should have its regulations finalized. “Hopefully, they won’t go overboard,” he said, “and demand that you have a fixed wing pilot’s license to fly a drone. But the key is to be prepared and come up with a plan with your local leaders.”
He concluded, “Drones have a great potential.”
The video below demonstrates how drone technology was used to cover pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.