Jessell at Large

Newsgathering Video Drones Taking Off

With the FAA saying no to journalistic uses of drones for the time being and an NTSB judge contradicting that edict, media outlets like KATV Little Rock, Ark., are going ahead and using amazing footage shot from unmanned aircraft systems. Under a congressional mandate, the FAA has been on course to develop regulations for the "safe integration" of commercial drones through a conventional rulemaking process by Sept. 30, 2015. Let's hope the agency develops its commercial drones rules as quickly as possible — and with an understanding of the special prerogatives of the media.

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.

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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.

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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.


Comments (7) -

Mike Cavender posted over 2 years ago
Your analysis is right on point, Harry. RTDNA is committed to working through all channels available to us to move this important issue off the point. There is a litany of reasons why drones need to be permitted to operate in news-gathering situations and RTDNA sees accomplishing this as a top priority for our membership!
Insider Nickname posted over 2 years ago
Just last night a drone fell out of the sky and smashed a building in St. Louis. As noted previously, drones will make for some great shots for news, but if Broadcasters such as KATV push this out before proper regulation, any drone disaster that happens will result in overly broad restrictions (if not bans). All it takes is 1 unmanned drone to collide with an emergency, medical or news chopper.....
Insider Nickname posted over 2 years ago
And look at news from late this afternoon:
Insider Nickname posted over 2 years ago
Bloomberg reports this is at least the 7th incident since September 2011 in which pilots have reported close calls with what they believed were small unmanned aircraft. James Williams, chief of the FAAs unmanned aircraft office also said a woman participating in an Australian Triathlon this year was struck by a drone. Drones are clearly coming to newsgathering which will give a new prospective, but if Broadcasters go willy-nilly before rules are in place, near misses will only result in tighter and more restrictive rules when the rules implemented. Let the Broadcasters be able to say, we obeyed the law until this was regulated and as thus, we were not involved in any way of these (hopefully near) disasters.
jdshaw Nickname posted over 2 years ago
Local TV stations using drones - what could possibly go wrong?
Bonefish Nickname posted over 2 years ago
Being a pilot and a broadcaster, I can tell you that the FAA is making this much more difficult than need be, but hey, isn't that the job of Washington? Drone use should be restricted to altitudes no higher than 300' above ground level and no closer than 1 mile from a controlled airport. To break that rule, the operator must be in touch with air traffic control. There. How tough was that?
Insider Nickname posted over 2 years ago
That works fine until a news event happens. A pilot and broadcaster should know that there are times the TV copters have to be ordered to higher levels to stay out of the way of law enforcement copters. And then what happens when a medical helicopter comes in to land and the drone is over the event (even if under 300 feet) and not in contact with air control? So your "how tough was that" answer is full of holes and shows that you do not have a good understanding of the issues.
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Overnights, adults 18-49 for September 29, 2016
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