New rules governing the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as drones, come into effect on August 29. The changes, released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), make it easier for everyday journalists to incorporate drone footage into their work. But just because you can use a drone, doesn’t mean you should use a drone. CJR spoke with Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab, as well as Bill Allen and Rick Shaw of The Missouri Drone Journalism Program, to answer some basic questions about drone technology.
What’s changing in drone rules, and what do those changes mean for journalists?
Until now, anyone wanting to fly a drone for commercial purposes—which doesn’t include hobbyists flying drones in their backyard—was required to get a recreational or private pilot certificate. “To get a private pilot’s license you need 40 hours of practical lessons in an airplane with a flight instructor. The total cost for that is about $9,000,” says Shaw, who got his pilot’s license before the new rules were on the table. As of Monday, the new requirements to operate a drone are to obtain a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating and to pass a background security check conducted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It is also legal to operate a drone without the certificate if you are directly supervised by someone that has one.
“Aerial videography and photography is nothing new, but before we had to hire a pilot, rent the airplane, and you were looking at $200 or $300 minimum for an hour to go up, and many times the pilots had a minimum of two or three hours,” says Shaw. “Now for that same cost, you can purchase a small unmanned aircraft, get someone on your staff trained, and use it repeatedly for a number of things. Plus, you’re also flying at a lot lower altitude. You know the FAA regulations–an airplane can’t fly below 400 feet off the ground. Whereas these you can get 10 feet, 50 feet, 100 feet off the ground.”
How do I get certified?
If you don’t already hold an existing non-student Part 61 pilot certificate, then to obtain your remote pilot certificate you need to pass an aeronautical knowledge test conducted by the FAA at a cost of approximately $150. You can schedule your test at one of these FAA-approved centers, and you need to take a government-issued ID. After you pass the test, you can submit an airman certification and rating application. You’ll be able to print a temporary certificate within 10 business days and the permanent certificate will be mailed to you once your security background check is complete. To keep your certificate up to date, you have to retake the knowledge test every two years. You can access test instructions, study guides, and sample questions here.
How hard is the test?
Hard. Hard enough that Waite, of the Drone Journalism Lab, anticipates a high failure rate. “There’s a lot of aviation knowledge on there that is just not terribly accessible to people who don’t take the time to study it,” he says. “If you think you can just sign up for the test and go take it, you’re wrong. That’s going to scare away a lot of journalists [and] I think that’s going to mean that it’s going to be a specialized skill within the newsroom.”
Shaw concurs, that the test is “just enough of a hurdle that perhaps would dissuade most people from considering it, but for those news organizations that really see the advantages of using unmanned aircraft or aerial videography it’s much more practical now than what it was before.”
What restrictions should I be mindful of under the new rules?
There is a digestible summary of the new rules available here and the full text is available here. The main restrictions to be keep in mind are to do with the size of your drone, where you can fly it, how high you can take it, and keeping the drone in your line of sight.
You can only fly a drone that weighs less than 55 pounds, and you need to obtain permission from Air Traffic Control if you want to fly in Class B, C, D and E airspace, which basically refers to airspace surrounding airports. Either the drone pilot or a visual observer must keep the drone in their line of sight at all times. You can’t use drones undercover or above people who aren’t part of the crew operating the drone, and you can’t fly your drone faster than 100 mph or higher than 400 feet. You can only fly a drone during daylight hours, but that includes 30 minutes before sunrise and after sunset.
What about state laws and privacy issues?
Waite emphasizes the importance of knowing the rules where you’re standing, including both local laws and customs. While the FAA has been formulating the new rules, some state legislatures have passed bills restricting the use of drones. For example, in Texas it is illegal to fly a drone higher than eight feet in the air, and to photograph private property without the permission of the landowner. “You could take a drone, fly it 10 feet in the air and take a photograph of the downtown Dallas skyline—a photo that has been taken tens of thousands of times from the ground and from the air and published without any problem at all—but because you used a drone, you were higher than eight feet, and you didn’t notify every visible landowner in the frame, you’re a criminal in the state of Texas,” says Waite. Basically, be careful and learn the rules before you fly.
As journalists, if we use these tools, we need to do everything in our practical ability to communicate with citizens on how they’re going to be used.”
Shaw thinks a lot of issues still need to be worked out. “Many of the things that we face as photographers regarding trespassing issues, privacy issues, those are all still going to be concerns that we should be aware of,” he says. “Also, perception issues. The word ‘drone,’ in the public’s perception, has a somewhat negative connotation to it. As journalists, if we use these tools, we need to do everything in our practical ability to communicate with citizens on how they’re going to be used, use them in a responsible manner, and to not push those hot-button issues on privacy and trespassing.”
What are some best practices to keep in mind and dangers to avoid?
Safety is the first priority when it comes to drones. Waite points out that a drone is essentially a “flying lawnmower.” If a big enough drone falls out of the sky at the wrong angle at high velocity, it could kill someone. The FAA rules are clear that you cannot fly a drone over people who aren’t manning the craft and that “consent does not matter,” says Waite. He adds: “Journalists are creative people. There are ways to get the shot without flying over people’s heads.”
And, of course, the real best practice is, in fact, practice. Shaw cites the lack of a practical component to the FAA test as a potential problem. “The one oversight in the whole process was not having some standard that required a practical level of experience,” he says.
Waite emphasizes the importance of getting to know your equipment in an unpopulated environment. “You don’t want your first flight with a drone to be one where you’re out in an urban environment where there are lots of people and moving cars and distractions and things like that. That’s dangerous,” he says.
Remember that the person who holds the remote pilot certificate is the person liable if anything goes wrong. Waite has concerns about potential lawsuits that could occur if, for instance, a news director bullies a journalist into flying in a situation they knew wasn’t safe and something went wrong. “Television news stations that have had manned helicopters for years…if the pilot of the helicopter says, nope can’t fly, it’s not safe, then that’s the end of the discussion. It should be the same way with drones,” says Waite.
Both Waite and Shaw recommend that drone operators use a spotter, who should be the only person talking to the pilot during flight operations.
Waite also recommends that newsrooms come up with their own policies to decide when and where it is safe to use a drone, and stick to them. That includes being mindful of weather restrictions and potentially giving themselves an extra margin of safety beyond what the manufacturer recommends. The Missouri Journalism School has done just that, including “at least six hours of practical hands-on flight before anyone associated with the Journalism School can consider using an unmanned aircraft,” says Shaw.
Although there is no requirement to do so, Shaw recommends that individuals and news organizations take out liability insurance to cover themselves in case of an accident. “There’s a number of organizations that are offering insurance and most of those can be found with a little bit of research,” he says.
What are drones good for when it comes to journalism?
One obvious benefit of drones is aesthetics. Aerial videos look great, and there is a novelty factor still at play in seeing the world from a new perspective–something that will no doubt fall victim to the law of diminishing returns as drone shoots become ubiquitous.
One area where drone footage is likely to be particularly helpful, however, is where it can give perspective to viewers by putting a story in geographical context. “Anytime you have to describe to people how big something is, how far it goes, how much area it covers, a drone is going to be really useful,” says Waite.
It’s about using it as a tool in a thoughtful, creative way to replace many of the hardware devices that were used in classic cinematography.”
Shaw references how drones can replace the expensive hardware and equipment that used to be required for dolly, tracking, and crane shots. “It’s not necessarily about shooting the thing up 200 feet in the air,” he says. “It’s about using it as a tool in a thoughtful, creative way to replace many of the hardware devices that were used in classic cinematography.”
Allen, of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, cites the investigative utility of drones in this story out of Dallas, in which aerial images of a meat-packing plant captured by a recreational drone pilot sparked an environmental investigation into the possibility that pig blood was being dumped into the Trinity River.
Beyond that, Waite points to the potential for drone footage to be used in combination with virtual-reality technology to create a 3D virtual model of a location, essentially enabling audiences to “walk through a news event without ever having to go there.” He also sees news organizations eventually using things like multi-spectral cameras to do more nuanced environmental stories based on remotely sensed data.
I want to buy a drone. What do I need to consider?
There are two main types of drones: multi-rotor helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Multi-rotors come with either four, six, or eight rotors. The more rotors, the more lift the drone has and the more weight it can carry—including more sophisticated camera equipment.
Multi-rotors are better for hovering in place or for getting a specific angle on a location. Fixed-wing crafts need to move to stay aloft, but that also means they tend to have better battery life. Even the best multi-rotors only have a battery life that allows for 20 to 30 minutes of flight time.
Prices can range from $20 for a practice drone without a camera attached—Waite keeps a couple of these in his office for people with no drone experience to practice with—up to half a million dollars for a drone purpose-built for broadcast television or movie production.
Waite says basic, entry-level models for a news organization that come with a decent camera start at about $900. Between $900 and $1,800, you can get a quad-copter with a 4K camera, a stabilizer, and assisted flight technology. Beyond that, you’re getting into more professional territory that will take you between $3,000 and $6,000. Drones in this range are about twice the size of entry-level quads and will carry better cameras. You can also get six or eight rotors for this price, which will help keep the copter in the air in case one of the rotors fails.
Where can I find out more information?
The Drone Journalism Lab has formulated a manual that interested parties can access on its website. The document is open-source and Waite encourages journalists to contribute to it as they learn from their own experiments with drones. The Lab also held a Drone Journalism Bootcamp in August and has plans to announce more in the future.
What are some good examples of drone journalism?
In the category of drone footage giving important perspective to the scale of a natural disaster, Waite cites CNN’s recent coverage of the Louisiana floods. CNN has a special partnership with the FAA called the Pathfinder Program, which has enabled them to use drones before the introduction of the new rules.
Shaw references a MediaStorm story that looks at the drought in California.
He also points to this BBC video, which captures the number of refugees making the journey from Turkey to Greece by boat. “It’s the right story and the right tool to use for it because you need that aerial perspective to be able to show the magnitude of the crisis,” says Shaw.