Drone Strike: TV-News Outlets Gear Up With New Eyes in the Sky

Brian Steinberg

Steve Harrigan was on the ground in Homosassa, Florida earlier this month to try to show Fox News viewers the extent of flooding damage caused by the hurricane known as Hermine. The best view of the havoc, however, really came from the air.

Fox News Channel used a drone – sometimes known in tech-junkie jargon as an “unmanned aerial system” – to get a bird’s-eye gaze of the rising waters. And the 21st Century Fox-owned news outlet isn’t alone. ABC News has tapped drones to help “Good Morning America” anchors like Ginger Zee and Amy Robach show off hidden Vietnamese caves and rare animals in Tanzania. CNN has already launched a new unit, called CNN Air, devoted to drone-captured footage. NBC News has utilized the flying devices to show viewers everything from the effects of earthquakes in Italy to floods in Louisiana, said Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president of editorial for NBC News.

“The future,” she said in a recent interview, “is now.”

Yet drones are about as constant on modern terrain as driverless cars. Their use remains embryonic, but they are expected to take on even more demanding roles at some news outlets in months to come. At CNN, there is serious chatter about letting drone-captured video live-stream for the Time Warner’s outlet’s digital properties, or capturing hard-to-get footage for Great Big Story, the company’s site focused on millennial news aficionados. “I think we would like to get to a place where we are actively up in the air and creating content a couple of times a week,” said Terence Burke, CNN’s senior vice president of national news, in an interview.

To be sure, the machines are becoming a more common sight. Other industries have embraced drones as well. PepsiCo’s citrus-y soda Mtn Dew has gotten involved in sponsorship of Tommy “Ummagawd” Tibajia, a drone racer. Government agencies use the machines to monitor land, protect land and examine phenomena related to the weather. Farmers can use drones to help work land that may not be reachable by tractor.

With new toys, however, come new risks that they may not be played with properly. “The utilization of drones by the media will inevitably complicate coverage of news stories,” said Albert Goldson executive director of Indo-Brazilian Associates LLC, a New York advisory firm that offers security risk assessments.

New rules governing drones make using them significantly easier than before.  The Federal Aviation Administration in recent weeks has put into effect new rules that make it easier to use drones commercially. Operators still require a special waiver to fly drones at night or work with them above 400 feet. Previously, companies often had to wait for months to apply for special permission from the FAA.

The TV-news outlets see the drones as a great help in their ongoing effort to capture exclusive video that might give one an edge over rivals. Drones could infiltrate crime scenes in ways that their antecedent, helicopters, never could. Might they make evidence public before the police can get their hands on it? Could the footage drones take be subpoenaed for use in a court case related to the crime? There are also rising concerns about privacy, since the aerial pods can get much closer to homes and crowds of people.

“Drones can go places where traditional video crews simply cannot,” noted Aaron Chimbel, an associate professor of professional practice at the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

That, of course, is part of their appeal. CBS News, for example, tapped a drone to help viewers understand the intense manhunt taking place around Dannemora, N.Y. last year when two prisoners busted out of the Clinton Correctional Facility there. “The ground shots up there can only tell so much of the story,” noted Tim Gaughan, CBS News’ vice president of newsgathering, in an interview, and the remote location made getting other means of bird’s-eye-view camera work near-impossible. CBS wanted to show viewers the terrain with which police were grappling. “The drone got us something that a traditional camera could not, and we could not rely on a helicopter.”

And the devices can cut down on a TV-news outlet’s financial burden as well. “The cost is a huge savings compared to the station having a helicopter,” said Chimbel. “In fact, many stations have shuttered their helicopter operations in recent years due to the high cost and the need to have pilots and crews on constant standby to respond to breaking news. Drones, on the other hand, provide much of the same benefits.”

CNN has worked hard to have drones take wing. It has worked alongside Georgia Tech Research Institute since the middle of 2014 to study using drones for news-gathering purposes, and it has taken part in research with the FAA to develop safe uses for the devices in the news industry. In August, the FAA granted the cable-news network the first waiver that allows for drones to fly over people in the United States.

Average citizens who find themselves in the midst of a newsy incident shouldn’t necessarily prepare for unmanned machines to dive-bomb them.  But there are a lot of rules for drone operators to keep in mind, said Greg Agvent, CNN’s senior director of news-gathering technology, in an interview.  The network wouldn’t fly a drone over people who are not involved in the news scene being covered, he said, nor would it operate the technology in a place where it might interfere with important work, like planes trying to help put out a wildfire. “We come up with all kinds of risk mitigation,” said Agvent.

Chances are growing, however, that a quick scan of the horizon might reveal a news drone hovering over to its next assignment. “We are going to try to use drones I more populated areas,” said CBS News’ Gaughan. “You’re going to see them get used in more urban settings.” A new eye in the sky is bound to draw more eyes to the sky as the devices goes about its new duties.

(Pictured, above: CNN’s Anderson Cooper with an unmanned aerial device by his side in 2015 for coverage of the damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina)

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