The Hidden Challenges of Newsgathering
AUGUST 24th, 2016
Journalism has always been one of the most hyped use cases for drones, and thanks to the release of the new Part 107 rules many are eager to try their hand at producing video content for news organizations. However, even in operations that appear straightforward, operating drones safely and effectively is harder than it first appears. Many pilots, from budding roof inspectors to tech-savvy farmers, forget that a drone is a tool that requires experience to be use successfully, and that collecting broadcast-quality footage from the air can be a tricky endeavor. The challenges are different than those encountered when flying for modeling structures or assessing crop health, but newsgathering via drone is no less technical or complicated.
As with all commercial drone operations, newsgathering has been subject to restrictive regulations in the United States. Under Section 333, commercial drone operators have to keep their drones at least 500’ away from non-participants and get permission from property owners when they fly over their land. Perhaps it goes without saying, but when you’re trying to film a breaking story, being forced to stay nearly two football fields away from the action is less than ideal! When the new Part 107 rules finally go into effect at the end of this month, the regulatory environment will become a little less onerous and a little friendlier to the media: the 500’ rule and property owner rules have both been lifted, though operators will still be limited to daylight hours and subject to airspace restrictions.
Even without the 500’ rule, Part 107’s restriction on direct overhead flight still makes bystanders a major concern for newsgathering operations. While flying a cell tower, a suburban roof inspection, or a field of sugar cane, there aren’t usually large groups of non-participants in the flight zone. In newsgathering operations, especially during breaking news events, pilots are often flying near large groups of bystanders and need to be exceedingly careful to not fly directly overhead or risk anyone’s safety. Media operations require pilots adept at quickly predicting and adapting to unique situations.
Resolution, frame rates, codecs, file types—delivering footage for media outlets requires a firm understanding of broadcasting standards and how to get the footage from drone to a TV set. When capturing B-roll, there is time for some post-production work (stabilizing choppy footage, fixing overexposure issues, re-encoding footage to meet requirements). Stakes are higher when live-streaming events: post-production simply isn’t an option. As a result, pilots must be familiar not only with requested media standards but also with capturing cinematic footage without the crutch of post-production.
Flying the drone is only half the battle for any operation. Equally as important, several orders of magnitude more complicated, and often forgotten by new drone businesses is the logistics challenge. Having the best pilots and best equipment in the world won't make the slightest bit of difference if you can't get them into place to get the shot. Firms looking to add media gathering to their business need to figure out how they want to transport their pilots and their equipment, or deploy teams to be ready to respond to breaking events. While there are always flight restrictions to be aware of during crises, there are plenty of situations where producers are looking for professional operators that they can trust close to the scene--giving firms with nationwide reach a significant value add.
It’s often overlooked when talking about commercial operations, but a keen visual sense is mandatory from a team flying a newsgathering mission. News outlets want the most compelling footage possible—they won’t be happy with poor framing or footage washed out because the camera was pointed at the sun. Newsgathering has a unique set of challenges, just like any other operation, and when there’s only one chance to get the shot you want the most experienced pilot team you can get at the controls. A farmer won’t care how creative the angle of approach zooming in on a corn field is, but you can bet that a news producer will!
Newsgathering isn't the only application opening up this September. Read about Part 107 and what it means for commercial drone operators.
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