Newsgathering Video Drones Taking Off
At the NAB Show last month, at the daylong TV news seminar, Disney/ABC chief technologist Vince Roberts wowed the audience (or at least me) with home video shot from his personal drone. It was nothing dramatic, just his neighborhood. But you could tell immediately what an amazing tool this will be for TV newsgathering. Even from 100 feet up, the HD camera provided clear, steady images of a vast area from varying perspectives.
The everyday use of drones in newsgathering is not as remote as you may think. In March, an administrative law judge at the National Transportation Safety Broad ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration was badly overstepping its authority in effectively banning commercial use of small drones.
The ruling came in the case of Raphael Pirker, a Hong Kong manufacturer of small video drones who has made a modest name for himself — mostly in the online world — by taking soaring aerial shots of tourist sites in such places as New York, Las Vegas and Hong Kong.
Last summer, the FAA nailed him with a $10,000 fine for shooting a video of the University of Virginia campus in 2011, asserting that it has the right to regulate anything in the air to insure the safety of all aircraft and people on the ground, even Pirker's five-pound Styrofoam model.
Oh no, you don't, National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty said. "No enforceable FAA rule" governs the small aircraft like Pirker used, he said. If he were to allow regulation of Pirker's drone under the FAA's general authority, he would have to allow regulation of "paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider."
The ruling thrilled the burgeoning commercial drone community that it eager to develop, build and market drones and put them to work not only in newsgathering, but also in filmmaking, surveying, mining, ranching, farming and other pursuits.
Of course, there will be more legal squabbling before anything is settled. The FAA appealed the ruling to the five-member NTSB, which has the effect of staying the decision.
It was good to see a consortium of 16 news organizations, including several broadcast groups and the Radio Television Digital News Association, weigh in with an amicus brief in the appeal not only to back Pirker and his arguments, but also to assert the First Amendment into the discussion.
The FAA's "overly broad policy, implemented through a patchwork of regulatory and policy statements and an ad hoc cease-and-desist enforcement process, has an impermissible chilling effect on the First Amendment newsgathering rights of journalists," the consortium’s brief says.
What's more, the brief cautions, the media are special. They should not be lumped in with other commercial users of drones. "Newsgathering is not a 'business purpose': It is a First Amendment right.
"Indeed, contrary to the FAA's complete shutdown of an entirely new means to gather the news, the remainder of the federal government, in legislation, regulation and adjudication, has recognized that, in the eyes of the law, journalism is not like other businesses."
The FAA itself, the brief points out, exempts accredited news media from temporary flight restrictions that are sometimes imposed near disaster scenes and other areas with "a high degree of public interest."
The media may not have to wait for the resolution of the Pirker case to post, publish or air drone images. In fact, some aren't waiting.
As we reported this week, KATV Little Rock, Ark., has been airing drone video for six months and is determined to keep airing it, despite a phone call from the FAA that a drone video it ran a week prior on tornado destruction may violate agency rules.
News Director Nick Gentry says he believes that Allbritton ABC affiliate may air such video with impunity as long as it doesn't own or operate the drone.
Drone video, including that which drew the FAA's ire, is shot by staff photographer Brian Emfinger on his own time, Gentry says.
Nobody asks him to use the drone, he says. “It is his drone to fly. It is not a requirement of the job by any means. It’s just a valuable tool that he supplies whenever he feels comfortable flying it."
The tornado video had great impact, he adds. “When it first aired, I think it really grabbed everybody’s attention and showed that this is huge. His [Emfinger's] use of the drone and our airing it really got the message out of how devastating this tornado was."
If KATV's theory is correct, TV stations and other media outlets can plunge into covering stories with drones by simply not asking too many questions of staffers and freelancers and encouraging drone enthusiasts who like to hang out around fires.
But is the theory correct? I sure don't know. It hasn't been run through the regulatory mill or been litigated yet.