Broadcasters Scramble the Drones

To shoot this year’s rowing competitions at the Rio Games, Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) and the BBC did something a little different.

Instead of an expensive helicopter for overhead shots or those limited side views we’ve seen since the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the companies employed a drone to take shots of teams crossing the finish line, to use for replays.

“A drone has numerous advantages over a normal camera because it allows us to get a totally new perspective on many sporting events,” said Pete Andrews, one of BBC’s senior producers for the broadcaster’s Olympics coverage in Rio. “It gives a live aerial shot for a quarter of the price of a helicopter. This means we can considerably add to our coverage with aerial geography and dynamic movement without breaking the bank. It can take off and land in a much smaller footprint and is much less intrusive, although it is still noisy.”

Since March 2015, when CNN laid claim to being the first to use an FAA-approved drone for news-gathering, the technology has become a mainstay in the industry. Look most anywhere in broadcast—from the smallest local affiliate’s daily news to the biggest sporting events in the world—and increasingly you’ll find drones deployed on a regular basis.

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) projects the United States drone marketplace will hit a record high this year, with 2.4 million units sold (up 112% year-over-year), with 1.6 million of those falling under 55 pounds, an important distinction when it comes to new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that go into effect in late August.

Drones have been legislated the same way helicopters are, but the new rules, which only apply to drones 55 pounds and under (including their payload) no longer require broadcasters to obtain specific FAA approval for news-gathering. Previously, broadcasters needed a special exemption, and were required to notify local air traffic controllers 24 hours in advance of when they were going to use drones.

Additionally, previous FAA rules prohibited commercial drone usage within 500 feet of people who weren’t participating in what the drone was shooting, forcing broadcasters to create a buffer zone of sorts around their work. The new rules, instead, simply prohibit the drones from operating directly over anyone. And finally, instead of a certified pilot requirement for operators, those using drones for commercial purposes only need a remote pilot airman certificate.

Some restrictions are still in place: The drones must be in line of sight at all times, and nighttime operation is still strictly prohibited. But those most closely involved in the broadcast and drone industries see a sea change coming for how news and live events are covered.

“I believe drones will be extremely transformative for broadcasters,” said Robert Kirk, a partner with D.C.-based law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer and head of the firm’s drone law practice. “Drones make aerial coverage extremely affordable. Moreover, numerous news vans could be equipped with drones given their small size. This will permit broadcasters to obtain aerial footage of breaking events more quickly. Drones also can provide unique sports coverage for certain events, like golf tournaments.”

Outside of the FAA rules, there are still some considerations for broadcasters to be aware of when using drones, Kirk added: state laws may differ on how footage can be used from a drone, specifically revolving around privacy, and operating drones around firefighters and police is still very much a gray area. A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) said its members are well aware of what they will and won’t be able to do with drones.

“Broadcasters are not going to be pushing the envelope when it comes to safety and try to test a gray area,” the spokesman said. “It’ll be tepid initially and move forward in a very cautious fashion. We will be working in coordination with the FAA, first responders and others to find the right balance between appropriate drone use and public concerns.

“The technology on this is growing so quickly that some of these concerns are already being addressed. We are light-years from where we were a few years ago.”

The spokesman said that the new rules are better, but that there’s still a barrier of entry for smaller broadcasters, mostly due to costs. And that both cameramen and producers will need to start getting certified as soon as possible, if they want to take advantage of what the new rules open up. And for Tony Carmean, partner and producer for Carlsbad, Calif.-based Aerial MOB, an FAA-approved drone services and aerial cinematography-for-hire company, the rules don’t go far enough. He thinks a full pilot’s license should still be in place (“to create a high bar and weed out the novices”) and that the new rules don’t completely address the problems with the current waiver process, when an operator wants to shoot within a few miles of an airport. He estimated around 350 requests for waivers are currently backed up with the FAA.

“It’s ridiculous,” Carmean said. “We get a call on Monday saying ‘We need you out in Santa Clarita next Friday to do a shoot.’ Well, if it falls within a five mile radius of an airport, most of the time we’re going to lose that job.”

Still, he looks at what the FAA has done so far, and does admit that broadcasters are going to benefit. And viewers as well, he said.

“It’s huge. Just like we thought it would [years] ago when we started, we thought drones would change the way news is covered, the way films are made, and at the end of the day the biggest benefactor is the audience, because they get a new perspective, a clear look at a news story in a way they couldn’t get in any other way, putting that story into a whole new light,” Carmean added.

Shenzhen, China-based DJI—touted as the biggest manufacturer of drones worldwide—has been keeping an eye on what broadcasters in the U.S. need to do to be compliant with their use of drones, and planned accordingly with its professional models, according to DJI’s North American spokesman Adam Lisberg. Along with weight requirements, the company’s drones aimed at broadcasters have all the necessary bells and whistles a TV crew would want: 4K video, live-streaming capabilities, controllers with HDMI jacks, navigation services that help prevent drones from flying in wildfire areas, 7X zoom cameras and cameras that can turn 360 degrees, and, of course, longer battery life.

Lisberg compared the speed that the technology of drones is being made to that of cellphones and desktops: By the time you put your new purchase to work, another model is coming out that makes what you own obsolete.

“In terms of what’s coming next, and what a news organization will spring for…it’s light-years better than what you could get from a helicopter,” he said. “Now you can find a way to get arresting, interesting shots that you couldn’t get before, and deliver them to viewers in a way you never could before.”

He said the FAA’s new rules “unequivocally” gives legitimacy to commercial drone usage in a way that didn’t exist before, showing that the federal agency recognizes the benefits for businesses and innovation.

“And broadcasting is a prime example of how we’re going to see that transformation happening,” he said. “Because news is so competitive, you are going to see pressure from different players in the same market operate much more quickly than people in other industries, to ensure [they] get in the air much quicker with drones, and make sure they make as much use of them as they can.”

As for getting in the air with drones more quickly, you’re already seeing broadcasters doing just that: Sinclair Broadcast Group announced in early August that it’s training nearly two-dozen pilots among its 150-plus stations nationwide to operate drones safely, and is working with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) at Virginia Tech to come up with safety protocols for drones and news-gathering. Sinclair also had a hand in developing “Voluntary Best Practices for UAS Privacy, Transparency, and Accountability,” a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) paper that attempts to balance First Amendment rights of broadcasters using drones, and the privacy of citizens.

Yet according to DJI’s Lisberg, drone privacy shouldn’t be much of an issue, considering how ubiquitous cameras already are in today’s digital, ever-connected world.

“Every day in this country there’s a professional news photographer shooting something legitimately newsworthy using a drone, and yes—others might not want [it] seen, [and the photographer] will run into some issues,” he said. “But how many times has a photographer run into the issue on a public street: ‘Don’t take my picture’? That’s a battle professionals run into all the time while exercising their First Amendment duties. And I don’t think the addition of drone technology makes that any different.”

For BBC’s Andrews, privacy isn’t what broadcasters will be most concerned about when drones become an everyday staple of their news-gathering tools. Technology and safety will be first on their minds, he said.

“Safety has to be the biggest concern. There are many strict rules around the world about where and when you can fly a drone,” he added. Just like in the U.S., drones in the U.K. can’t fly directly over people, and must have a clear line of sight by their operators. “Drones also have a short battery life and most broadcast drones can only fly for 10-15 minutes at a time before having to return to the ground for a battery change,” he said.

But the concerns are far outweighed by the benefits, according to the NAB spokesman: innovative camera angles to get shots of traffic jams, emergencies and other news events, without getting news personnel in the way or putting them in danger, will be just the beginning.

“The value-adds from drones are just immeasurable right now,” he said.