This Just In: Broadcasters Studying How They Can Use Unmanned Aircraft

CNN’s Agvent, BBC’s Bocking and attorney Roberson discuss unmanned aircraft and journalism. AUVSI photo.

Although they still can’t legally use unmanned aircraft for news reporting, at least in the United States, broadcasters are increasingly interested in the technology and are getting serious about figuring out how best to use it, according to speakers at a NewsTECH conference in New York.

CNN is partnering with Georgia Tech to evaluate and test UAS technology, and the National Press Photographers Association is working with the Mid-Atlantic UAS Test Site to do the same thing.

Greg Agvent, CNN’s senior director of planning and logistics, said CNN will propose a particular configuration for a small UAS and Georgia Tech, which has a certification of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration for the work, will test it.

Agvent says Georgia Tech’s researchers will then come back and say, “yes, this camera works, yes, this frequency [works],” he said at a session entitled “drones and newsgathering.”

He said aerial systems could prove beneficial beyond just aerial video and photography. They can carry a variety of sensors, such as moisture sensors, which could help with stories such as documenting the California drought.

“It’s beyond video,” he said. “You can hang all sorts of sensors off a UAV and that gives you big data.”

Joel Roberson, an attorney with Holland & Knight, which represents the photographers, says his association is working with the Mid-Atlantic test site to devise realistic news situations where an unmanned aircraft could be used, and plans to then share that data with the FAA.

The panel discussed that some stations are buying aerial video from hobbyists, which Roberson said is a gray area at best as to whether that means the flight was for commercial use.

“It’s a potential loophole, but it’s fraught with peril,” he said.

Agvent said that CNN has purchased such video a couple of times at most, and said, “I don’t think we [broadcasters] are driving that market.”

One panel member actually can fly unmanned aircraft for news coverage, albeit in very limited circumstances. Andy Bocking, the BBC’s technology controller, said his agency is able to fly, but still faces stiff Civil Aviation Authority restrictions.

“There is a whole lot of stuff we need to be aware of,” he said. “It makes it quite difficult.”

The systems have proven valuable for getting footage that can be used as part of an overall story package, but they aren’t legally usable for breaking news, especially in cities.

“It’s not going to be the first camera on site, and it’s not going to take the first pictures,” he said.

He can’t fly in crowded areas, for instance, so aerial coverage of something like the sprawling Glastonbury concert is limited to manned helicopters.

Agvent said there are a host of issues that the community needs to address as an “ecosystem,” including bandwidth and spectrum. He asked, what happens when every news outlet in town shows up at the same place at the same time and they all want to fly their drones at once?

He mentioned the “geofencing” capability that’s part of some new unmanned aircraft, which keeps them from flying near airports.

“That sort of thing needs to come from us,” he said of the broadcasting community.

Bocking said he’s an RC plane enthusiast and noted that in the past, you needed experience to fly such planes well. The newest systems are much easier to fly, which, along with their lower cost, makes them attractive to many people, he said.