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For local TV news, there’s revolution in the air

The day is rapidly coming when drones will be a key part of local television news coverage. 

A camera drone flying near the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion in the East Harlem in March.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

Every day, news directors at TV stations in big markets like Minneapolis-St. Paul have to make important decisions, and we’re not talking just a thumbs up or thumbs down on the aging anchor’s new toupee: Which stories to cover, with limited resources? Which pieces to give the full reporter, camera and van treatment? And arguably, the most perilous of all — whether to send up the absurdly expensive chopper, or not.

With the recent Federal Aviation Administration announcement that it has opened the public comment phase on expanding the use of drones — aka unmanned aerial vehicles — for news organizations, the day is rapidly coming when an aerial shot of a house fire in Fridley; a massive traffic tie­-up in Bloomington; or door­-to-door coverage of a football player visiting the Vikings’ offices in Eden Prairie will be much easier — and have far less impact on a station’s leaner-­than­-a-dessicated-jawbone news budget.

Waiting for the revolution — and the FAA

The short version of the story is that the Feds have begun their usual glacial process to authorize evolving technology, this time for light-weight drones being used for aerial photography. The long and more complicated version is that the routine use of such drones may still be a couple years off. But the revolution is definitely in the air.

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In the glory days of local TV news, when ad money flowed like cheap beer at a frat house kegger — before stations were bought up by conglomerates who demanded the vast majority of revenue to bolster the parent company’s shareholder value — everyone who was a player in the local market had their own chopper, which went roaring into the wild blue every time Grandma Sally’s cat got trapped in a tree. At an operating cost of something in the range of $800­-$1300 an hour, those days are a distant memory.

Currently, only locally­-owned KSTP-­TV has their own bird. KMSP, WCCO and KARE share chopper service, and even then use it rarely. But a 50-­pound drone with a hi­gh-definition lens? Much cheaper.

Calls to local newsrooms, where “for background only” was required because upper management either was out of the office or because the aforementioned parent companies frown on anyone talking to “the press” without permission, paints a picture of newsies hip to the value of the technology, but aware of how slowly regulatory wheels turn in these situations.

The United States is already lagging behind Canada in authorizing drones for commercial use, issuing only 69 permits to date, compared with over 1,600 by our friends north of the border. In contrast with those having to navigate the FAA’s process, companies operating in Canada are first given 30-­day permits with terms for a specific project in a particular location. Those who prove they can operate safely and within guidelines eventually graduate to a certificate that allows them to operate anywhere at any time without another round of permissions.

“We’ve been watching the whole drone thing very carefully,” said one newsroom boss. “There’s no question it’d be a great new tool for us. But no matter what the FAA decides, there is still the problem of legal issues, in terms of whose property we can fly over and what happens if one of those things crashes on someone.”

During these public comment phases, FAA employees are also not authorized to speak with the press. (There’s a theme here, somewhere.) But the local Twin Cities office did boot over several informational links to current and proposed regulations.

In FAA jargon, the agency is looking at rewriting the rules for a Certificate of Authorization, i.e. the right to use remotely ­operated devices for commercial purposes. A look at the FAA’s “COA” page shows that most certificates issued today are for agricultural and construction purposes, scanning crops for diseases and tall structures for quality control.

A techie at a local station told me they’ve seen any number of fascinating devices hyped at trade shows, and that he has no doubt technology already on the market could work well enough for most spot news stories, with the caveat that drones of the size the FAA is considering – less than 55 pounds – still have only a 20-­minute flying time and have difficulty producing shudder­-free telephoto images, meaning the device would have to be positioned almost directly overhead whatever the action. “They’re working on the mounts, with gyroscopes and gimbals and they get better all the time. But they aren’t quite there yet. But as anyone can see from YouTube, the fixed, wide-angle images people are getting now are excellent.”

Pro­-quality units, he said, are currently going for $7,000­-$10,000, but as with all such technology, prices are expected to drop as the machines get more sophisticated. A South African company is out with a drone for police use capable of lifting 100 pounds … and of spraying rioters with paint balls. 

Current rules limit news organizations 

Still, current flight rules for commercial drones are quite confining. The operator must keep the unit in line of sight, which means it’ll be a while more before stations can simply send one up from the home office and fly it across town. Until then, a van would have to get it to the scene of a story and send it up from there. Then there are the air rights issues about flying over private property. For the moment, there’s still a significant difference between what is allowed for a ­piloted chopper – noise be damned – and a remotely-­operated drone that is virtually silent.

The hope is that the FAA will eventually allow news drones to operate above scenes much as choppers do today.

Current FAA regulations on drone use by hobbyists are probably going to get a working over too, considering the obvious security concerns with flying them over large numbers of people, like this incident in Pittsburgh last summer.

“Right now,” said another station manager, “the most we can use them for are feature packages, over forests, public parks, that kind of thing. But the FAA is getting a lot of feedback from the industry to loosen those restrictions.” 

“Until they put out something definitive,” which could come as early as this fall, “It’s all still pretty pie in the sky,” the manager continued. “But there’s no doubt it’s coming, and if insurance issues and all that can get worked out, it’ll give us opportunities to get in places we’ve never been before.”