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Drone Proponents Face Strong Headwinds

Ever since Congress passed 2012 legislation requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to issue regulations legalizing the commercial use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 2015, many news organizations and Hollywood producers have had their eyes on the skies, waiting for the day when UAVs would provide them with a wonderful new tool for shooting spectacular HD or even 4K footage.

In some ways that day has already arrived. Governments and companies spent some $6.6 billion on drone research and development in 2013, according to aerospace analysis company the Teal Group, fueling rapid technological advances and widespread use of drones in TV and movie production worldwide.

But in other important ways, drone technology is stuck in a very dangerous holding pattern, thanks to a storm of regulatory, technological and practical issues. Here are a number of them that need to be kept on everyone’s radar.

The FAA currently allows hobbyists to fly model aircraft up to 400 feet high for non-commercial purposes. It also grants exceptions for law enforcement and other government entities but generally bans commercial applications, which makes it illegal for news organizations and producers to use them in the U.S.

Under the provisions of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress mandated that the agency come up with new rules to legalize UAV use by Sept. 30, 2015. But a June 26 audit by the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Transportation found that the FAA “is significantly behind schedule on meeting” requirements for new rules.

Worse, the auditors also reported the agency faces “significant technological, regulatory and management barriers” to its efforts to decide how UAVs can be safely used in U.S. airspace.

“It could be two or two-and-a-half years before final rules are implemented,” estimates Matt Waite, professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of Drone Journalism Lab, though he believes the FAA might grant some Hollywood producers exemptions much earlier.

That is particularly worrisome because usage is exploding. Thousands of hobbyists, who can already legally use drones for non-commercial purposes, regularly capture stunning images that attract millions of views on YouTube. They have also been widely used in entertainment industries outside the U.S. to create images for the Sochi Olympics, the 2014 World Cup, such TV series as Game of Thrones and movies such as Lionsgate’s upcoming Expendables 3.

Closer to home, “there is a tremendous amount of unauthorized use going on in making TV commercials, reality TV and movies,” Waite says. “Hollywood has been using them for years—they’ve even given out an Oscar for technical innovation” to Gifford Hooper and Philip George for the development of the Helicam miniature helicopter camera system.

He and others worry that the widespread flouting of FAA rules could produce a major accident that could further slow the regulatory process. “There are too many cowboys out there not following the rules,” argues Ian Hannah, founder of Avrobotics, who has legally used drones on a number of lifestyle TV productions in Canada. “Part of the problem is that regulators haven’t responded quickly enough.”

Equally worrisome is state legislation. A recent study by Mickey Osterreicher and Matt Waite found that 44 states have considered or passed bills to restrict drone usage, and six have passed or are considering bills that “would directly impact journalists’ ability to use UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] for reporting.”

“The states are not waiting for the FAA,” Waite says. “Journalists need to keep an eye on them because some of them are doing things that are actively hostile to the First Amendment.”

Murky Rules and Court Challenges

Waite and others say that journalists need to be involved in the rulemaking process so that the final regs don’t impose onerous restrictions on news organizations. “At the moment, we have no idea what kind of licensing, training, background checks or other requirements will be required by the FAA,” he says.

These details are important because some countries, such as Canada and the U.K., have implemented rules requiring prior approval for drone usage. That wouldn’t be a problem for movie and TV productions that generally know where they will be filming far in advance, but it would limit their use by news media. “If you want to cover a tornado, you can’t wait a week to get FAA approval,” Waite says.

Case law around drone usage as it relates to First Amendment rights, privacy and even regulatory authority also needs to be monitored.

In March, for example, an administrative law judge at the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the FAA did not have the authority to impose a $10,000 fine on Raphael Pirker for using a drone to collect images for a University of Virginia promotional video in 2011. The FAA stayed the decision by appealing to the full NTSB board, which is expected to issuing a ruling shortly.

If the original decision is upheld, UAV operators might expand usage without facing FAA fines. But this could also prompt Congress or state legislatures to impose strict laws that would ground the industry for years to come.

At the moment, broadcasters are approaching the use of UAVs very cautiously, given FAA restrictions, says Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). “But there is clearly a lot of interest,” he says. “At [the NAB show] in April, people were lined up three and four deep to see the drone companies that were exhibiting.”

The RTDNA and other news organizations are also exploring ways to show that the news media is well-equipped to safely operate drones. CNN and Georgia Institute of Technology are partnering on an ambitious yearlong project to research UAVs, with the ultimate goal of sharing the data with the FAA, reports David Vigilante, senior VP of legal at CNN.

Vigilante stresses the importance of taking a wider look at the subject so that policy isn’t determined simply by “bad actors” or users that have used drones in an unsafe manner. “I don’t want to see our imagination of what is possible in this space being limited by the minds of lawyers and bureaucrats,” says Vigilante. “Our hope is that by sharing the data, we can convince them that news organizations can test these things and operate them safely.”

Innovation at Warp Speed

One key part of the CNN project will be to look at the rapid technological changes sweeping the UAV industry. “Innovation is proceeding at a frantic pace,” says Mannie Frances, founder of Drone Media Group, who helped organize sold-out UAV training sessions at NAB 2014. “There are new UAV models out almost every week. Cameras are getting lighter and Gimbal technology [to stabilize the image] is innovating very rapidly.”

“Systems that used to cost several thousand dollars can now be purchased for $500,”adds Philip Grossman, senior director content acquisition and management, The Weather Co.,which has used UAVs to shoot dramatic 4K footage in Russia around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

Users still face a number of technical hurdles, however. Battery life is relatively short— as little as 10 minutes with some of the heavier cameras—which would restrict their appeal to news organization and local broadcasters. And the radio spectrum needed to control and fly the UAVs can be limited in urban areas, where there are many people using wireless networks.

But such problems are likely to be addressed as more investments are made, with Teal Group estimating that $89.1 billion will be invested in the sector over the next decade around the world. “We should not be limiting our imagination of what they can do based on the little quadcopters we have today,” Vigilante says.

The Promise and the Peril

Rapid improvements in UAV capabilities and growing use by hobbyists have raised a number of concerns.

Some of these fears are relatively unfounded and based on lack of familiarity with existing technologies. Following rumors in 2012 that TMZ was buying drones to track celebrities—something the website quickly denied—a number of commentators worried that UAVs would be used to invade the privacy of high-profile public figures.

While privacy concerns are very real, a number of existing laws already cover those issues and there are some realities that would limit them even if the FAA passed rules that would allow their legal use by journalists and paparazzi, experts says.

Battery life, for example, would restrict flights to no more than 40 minutes—far less if larger cameras were utilized. Operators would also need to be able to keep the drone in sight to effectively follow someone, making drones a less appealing alternative to the current techniques of tailing celebrities or politicians in cars or motorcycles.

More worrisome is their use by amateurs in dangerous emergency situations or dense urban areas. During the 2013 collapse of a building in Harlem, for example, an operator used a drone to take compelling shots of the tragedy that were eventually posted on the site of the Daily News.

“The incident shows the promise and the perils of the technology at the same time,” Waite says. “He was able to get some incredible footage. But he was operating in an area with a tremendous amount of radio interference. He could have lost control at any moment and potentially hit someone.”

Radio interference is a common problem in dense urban areas and is believed to have caused operators in St. Louis, New York City and other places to lose control of their UAVs, which then crashed into buildings or the street. “Spectrum is a very important issue with UAVs that hasn’t been given enough attention,” adds Hannah. “There are times and places when you simply can’t use them.”

“There is already tension between journalists and the police and first responders at crime or crash scenes,” Waite says. “I think there will be further conflicts because of these things….We are going to need to establish rules of the road and some guidelines.”

Airing footage shot by UAVs also raises concerns for media outlets. Should they agree to pay for footage collected by hobbyists? And if they do, how might the FAA react? Could the news organization as well as the operator be fined?

Some state laws that make it illegal to use drones to videotape people without their consent might also be used to restrict the right to air drone footage. “There are a lot of gray areas,” says Cavender at the RTDNA. “But regardless of where the video came from we don’t want to be told we can’t use it, which to us is a clear violation of the First Amendment.”

Preparing for Takeoff

Such problems also highlight some of the challenges that producers and news media will need to address when they start using the technology.

Hannah notes that his crews in Canada need to make a number of safety checks before filming. These include checking their equipment, potential hazards in the area and very importantly, available spectrum, which allows operators to communicate wirelessly with the UAV and control its movements.

“We always do a spectrum analysis before we fly,” he says. “If it is too busy we won’t be flying in that area.”

Spectrum will also be important for news organizations if they try to use a UAV for live shots. “I think this is an area that needs more attention,” Hannah says.

With traditional video workflows, testing equipment is an integral part of the process, but it is particularly important with UAVs. “If a camera doesn’t work, people don’t get hurt, but if a UAV doesn’t work, someone can,” says Frances. “Testing and training have to be an integral part of the workflow.”

Frances and Hannah both stress the important of planning, both in understanding the location and in preparing shots. “You can’t just say you’ll fix stabilization issues in post [production],” Frances says. “You have to make sure the equipment is calibrated right because stabilization is a huge part of the workflow for high-quality images.”

Both also recommend two- or three-person teams, with one person to operate the vehicle, another to control the camera and potentially a third to make sure that people don’t get in the way or enter an area where they could be hurt.

Traditional skills in production are also crucial. “It’s as much about the art as the technology,” Frances says. “You have the best equipment and give it to a mediocre DP [director of photography] and get not such great results. And, you can give some low end equipment to a great DP and acquire some amazing shots.”

The Weather Company’s Grossman believes UAVs will open up some amazing opportunities to cover extreme weather in ways that they never could before. “You can not only tell the story but provide visual data back to the first responders that will be very important for their efforts,” he says.

But he adds that the process of using UAVs is complex, something he’s discovered first hand while working in his spare time, making trips to Russian to capture footage around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant for a documentary he plans to complete next year. “Flying and capturing footage is not as easy as everyone thinks,” he says. “To fly a drone, you need the same spatial awareness you need flying an airplane. A 20-pound object falling several hundred feet can potentially kill someone. Training is very, very important.”

Those skills are particularly important in his case. During his shoots in Chernobyl, he has both been flying the drone and operating the camera simultaneously, which makes preplanning extremely important. His rig, which carries a Sony 4K camera, has a battery life of about 20 to 25 minutes but he typically plans 15-minute flights.

“You have to preplan your shots the same way you would with a jib [camera on a boom] or anything else and make sure you’re shooting from different [angles] to get all the material you need,” he says. “After a 15-minute flight, you’re ready for a rest. It’s mentally challenging.”

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Costs for new UAV systems have taken a nosedive in the last couple of years, with some manufacturers offering $75 toy quadcopters equipped with cameras and all-in-one systems capable of producing decent images available for under $500. But most professional users will want to spend at least $1,000-$1,500 to get a higherquality camera and Gimbal system to stabilize the image, says Mannie Frances, founder of Drone Media Group “The sweet spot for a decent rig to get broadcast-quality video is probably around $2,000 and up,” he says.

Systems capable of carrying heavier DSLRs or cinema-quality cameras run $8,000-$30,000. Insurance is another major cost, notes Ian Hannah, founder of Avrobotics. Liability insurance can run as much as $10,000 for larger, more expensive drones with “military specs” and $3,000-$4,000 a year for Phantom rigs from DJI. “The rigs don’t cost that much, but the cost of hitting something can be very expensive,” Hannah says.

Even so, these prices could make them a very attractive alternative newsgathering tool. A $3,000 drone and camera could shoot stand-ups and live shots that could be streamed back to the station for far less money that a $75,000 microwave truck, $200,000 satellite vehicle or a manned helicopter, which can cost six figures a year just to operate.