Ten drone stories affecting journalists you might have missed in 2019

The shots have become almost ubiquitous—aerial footage of the aftermath of a tornado, news photos showing the impact of flooding on farmers’ fields or the sweeping landscape shot over rolling hills. Newsrooms have incorporated drones into their daily workflow, and news managers are doing their best to pay attention to the stories and trends that will affect how they use this important tool.

But we all know those same news managers don’t have enough time in their days to keep up with everything on their plates, much less read deeply into drone coverage to see what’s coming in the near future. So we did that reading for you and have 10 items you might have missed that could impact your newsroom’s use of drones. From regulatory concerns to technological advances to ethical questions, these stories should get everyone thinking about how to move forward with the newsroom’s drone fleet.

Drone “License Plates” are coming

Anyone who has piloted a drone near a breaking news scene knows the skies can get pretty crowded. News crews have drones up and hobbyists often clutter the air with their own aircraft, making it difficult to fly safely.

The FAA updated its rule on the physical marking of drones in February. Beyond that, to help determine just who is flying at a given scene, the FAA has spent more than two years developing regulations for what it calls “Remote UAS Identification.” Simply put, the agency is looking to require drones to carry an electronic “license plate” that would beam out information about each drone in the air, including the drone’s registration number, along with its speed, altitude and heading.

The FAA has had significant delays working on the regulation, missing a July and September deadline this year while working with industry partners on the details of implementation. One of those partners, massive DJI—which holds a 70 percent share of the global drone market—is ahead of the FAA with mid-air drone identification. The company has promised an app in early 2020 to deliver this information to people on the ground. Reuters reported in November that DJI is aiming for ease of use with the identification system, quoting Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI, saying, “We’ve created a remote identification solution that works with what people already have.”

Regulations to require mid-air identifications and simple means to read them should be a plus for newsrooms operating drones in crowded airspace. The ability to track and pursue hobbyists and anyone violating FAA rules should clear the way for journalists who are doing it by the book.

Industry leaders will help write a recreational drone flying test

In another government-industry partnership, the FAA has called on members of the professional drone-flying community to help write a new test for recreational flyers.  The FAA defines recreational flyers as those who do non-commercial flights as a hobby or means of recreation.

A law passed in 2018 places more restrictions on recreational flyers and has already forced some changes in where recreational flyers may operate. In September, the FAA issued a Request for Information asking interested parties to apply to be part of the advisory group. In December, the FAA announced the 12 organizations participating.

While none are news organizations, the diverse group includes universities, manufacturers, pilot groups and more. These organizations all have ties to the commercial drone community and will provide important feedback on the FAA regulatory process. Much like the mid-air identification requirements, testing of recreational flyers should remove the worst of them from the airspace and allow safer and more effective flying for journalists.

NPPA sets up partnership with first responders

Journalists are involved in a new effort to coordinate with first responders at the scene of breaking news stories where drones are in operation.  The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) announced in November it has teamed up with DRONERESPONDERS, an alliance of public safety professionals who operate in the National Air Space (NAS), using drones for their work.

A memorandum of understanding between the two groups will lay the groundwork for mutual training and communication efforts that will improve safety and efficiency at scenes where both first responders and journalists are flying. “It’s really about building trust,” NPPA general counsel Marty Osterreicher said in a joint news release from the two groups.   “Manned public safety aircraft pilots and news helicopter pilots know each other and communicate freely in the NAS over incident scenes. We want to create the same environment for remote pilots operating drones.”

Competition honors best in drone images and footage

We journalists love our awards. Who doesn’t envy the reporter across the way with a forest of Emmys and Sigma Delta Chi awards on her desk?

 Drone journalists have felt a little left out. None of the top national journalism awards includes a category specifically to honor accomplishments in aerial journalism. But an international photo competition has branched out to do just that. The Siena International Photography Awards runs a separate competition just for aerial photography simply called the “Drone Awards.” With both still and video categories, the international competition is a place for the best in your shop to enter work that surpasses journalism to become art.  There’s no breaking news category here. Winners are honored for creating visual masterpieces from the air. At just 2 years old, those honored seem to come from a variety of interests outside journalism. But with the images and footage drone journalists create every day, this competition is one that should serve the profession well.

Mavic Mini could be the drone for everyone

Turning to drone tech, it was hard to miss the recent roll-out of the Mavic Mini, a tiny drone that appears to be designed primarily for Gen Z to up its selfie game.

Marketed as being about the size of your cell phone, the drone seems like a toy compared to the Phantoms and Inspires most newsrooms use. News managers should see the Mavic Mini as a supplement, not  a replacement, for those heftier drones. Just as each journalist in your newsroom carries a high-quality camera built into her or his phone with which to grab breaking news, at less than $400 it’s feasible for a newsroom to equip every journalist in the field with a drone.

With a case about the size of a small lunchbox, the Mavic Mini could be stored in the glove compartment of most news cars. Keeping fresh batteries on hand provides more of a challenge, though the newsroom could hand those out to everyone headed out the door, keeping safe charging monitored back at base. Image quality on these tiny drones won’t match what you’ll get from the bigger models, but with photo resolution at 4000 x 3000 pixels and video resolution at 2.7K at 30 fps, it’s plenty sharp enough for broadcast television, print or web use.

Flying over crowds moves one step closer

One of the most disappointing things every new drone journalist discovers is that FAA rules prohibit our flying over crowds of people. Our ideas about the breathtaking crowd shots we’ll get swooping down from the heavens at a concert or other event are quickly dashed when we read the Part 107 UAS Operations language that clearly states we: “Must NOT fly over people.” The reason is clear—even a lightweight drone like a DJI Mavic Pro could cause serious injury falling on someone from 300 or 400 feet.

But there’s a ray of hope.

Back in June, the FAA issued its first waiver to a Colorado-based construction company to fly its drones over people—as long as the drones are equipped with parachutes. The agency stated the parachutes must meet some stringent technical standards, but also called the ruling on this waiver “scalable,” meaning others could apply for the same waiver.  Should standard parachute rigs meeting the FAA standards become commercially available, the look of much of our coverage could change.

Inflight “refueling” could extend flight time

One of the greatest limits is the relatively short flying time our aircrafts get from each battery.  It always seems that, just as you have rehearsed and perfected the shot you want, the battery alarm goes off and it’s time to return to home.

But researchers at the University of California in Berkeley have borrowed an idea from the military to do a bit of in-flight refueling—in this case have fresh batteries that can fly right to and mate with a drone in the air.

A YouTube video from September with more than 25,000 views shows the refueling in action. The small flying battery drops onto the bigger drone while in flight as electrical contacts on the bottom of the flying battery connect the two electrically. The new battery imparts its charge and then, once depleted, undocks to make room for another flying battery. 

The researchers were able to continue docking new flying batteries for 57 minutes until the main battery could no longer carry enough charge to fly. The experiments so far were under strict indoor lab conditions and there’s no immediate plan to move this system to production. But with advances in battery technology and systems like this in the offing, drone flight duration may eventually be no worry for a working journalist.

Changing your drone’s shape may extend its flight time

Until those flying batteries arrive on the market, extended drone flight time may come from changing the way drones look. Your standard four-rotor quadcopter could someday give way to a doughnut-shaped drone with just two rotors tucked inside.  A Swiss company called Flybotix is showing off a loop-shaped drone that flies with just two rotors. Aside from putting an end to rotor cuts on your fingers, the company claims the reduction in rotors and change in shape extends battery life considerably. The drone is going to be aimed initially at the industrial inspection market for use flying into tight spaces (the outer ring of the drone is covered in foam that lets it bounce off obstacles). The news applications are pretty obvious for this dinner plate-sized copter.

Flybotix has competition in the “droughnut” market. Canadian company Cleo Robotics is testing another inspection-focused drone that’s not much bigger than a hockey puck. It doesn’t offer a lot of extra flight time (just 12 to 15 minutes per charge), but the small size and quiet design once again could make it ideal for journalistic applications.

VR-style goggles may up our flying game

Flying a drone for news coverage involves just two sticks and two thumbs, right? So far it has, but the world of drone racing may yield new tools to make flying journalism missions sleeker and probably a bit more fun.

In August, DJI unveiled what it calls a “Digital First Person Viewing (FPV)” kit for drone racing navigation. The gear still has the familiar two-stick controller.  But add to that a set of VR-style goggles that provide low-latency high-definition video from the drone during high speed maneuvers. Drone racing is a growing sport and the market for this kind of gear will be huge there.

But what about journalism and other creative and cinematic endeavors? This German BMW spot includes FPV drone racing footage to increase the appeal of the car. And the true immersive nature of this footage couldn’t be clearer than in these shots from Miami (caution—motion sickness may result). While some of this movement will be too much for a TV news audience, imagine its impact in high-energy events like live sports coverage. DJI is expected to release a drone to go with this package in the near future.

A viral video may point out ethical challenges 

Finally, just how will all these breakthroughs affect the ethics of where we fly and what we show? A cute viral video that first broke out late last year ended up raising concerns about how the footage was obtained.

In the video, we see a mother bear at the top of a snow-covered ridge coaxing her young cub to climb the slippery slope to join her. The cub slowly climbs the cliff, paws slipping on the snow, only to just miss reaching its mother before sliding back down again. The pair eventually reunites and trots off hurriedly away from the camera. Just as the footage ends, we see the mother bear look back in the direction of the camera—clearly a drone from its vantage point.

While most were tickled by watching the bear cub slide down the hill, some raised questions about wildlife harassment with drones, suggesting the entire reason the bears were climbing the icy slope was to get away from the flying camera.

The criticism brought to light an academic publication from 2016 that suggests best practices for using drones around wildlife. Its authors—ecologists at the University of Adelaide in Australia—recommend drone pilots photographing or filming wildlife launch and recover their drones as far from the animals as possible, use the best equipment to keep the drones quiet and at a distance and probably most important, stop flying the drones if it’s clear they are bothering the animals.

The quickness with which people can complain about the practices used by drone pilots—and especially journalists—means while our eyes are watching in the sky, others will be watching us from the ground.


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