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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Could Drones Be Used For Radio Reporting?


As the FAA grants more licenses to photographers and organizations this year for commercial drone flights, these unmanned machines equipped with HD cameras are beginning to be used for news gathering operations. Some local television news outlets have already started using "drone cams." Could radio news and traffic teams be far behind?

Drones have the ability to obtain video and information from areas and angles that traditional manned aircraft cannot. This offers unique opportunities for news gatherers.

The Las Vegas-based ArrowData claims it was the first company in the country to receive approval to use drones for the purpose of electronic news gathering or what it has termed as "AeroJournalism." So far, the company is targeting television stations who might want to use their services.

However, the Clackamas, OR-based Aerial Technology International, which is still awaiting its final FAA approval, has already signed an agreement with rapidly growing radio corporation Alpha Media. Using Portland as a test market, Alpha Media will be using drones for breaking news and traffic coverage for its stations.

Additionally, KFI-AM/Los Angeles has begun to equip its reporters with a drone to help with their news reporting.

Colin Hinkle, a freelance aerial photographer and owner of Soaring Badger Productions, was the first to receive FAA permission for commercial drone flights in the Chicago market. His drone use has already been featured in local television news reports.

Hinkle tells Radio Ink that these commercial drones are not like the remote control toys sold in big chain retail stores. The most common and popular model of drone is the DJI Phantom. He says it costs around $1200 and "produces amazing images in a tiny package."

When it comes to public safety, Hinkle says the drones are quite safe when used properly. Said Hinckle: "All of my models have built in GPS so if I lost contact with the drone or the battery starts to rapidly deplete, it will automatically return back to me. Short of a mechanical failure, which aircraft can experience as well, they should never fall out of the sky. In my opinion, if these devices used properly they can be safer than larger aircraft carrying fuel and passengers. As far as air traffic concerns, my models also won't launch when too close to airports. Based again on GPS tech, they know where they are and how close they are to airports. Plus, if you stay under 400ft as mandated by the FAA, you should not be in airline airspace."

Despite the Portland contract that Alpha Media has entered into, Chicago's Hinkle has his doubts about drones' effectiveness for radio stations... at least at this time. "I don?t believe drones will replace helicopters anytime soon. They have a limited battery life currently (15-20 minutes) and fly within range of the operator," said Hinkle. "Plus they have stronger limitations that helicopters don't have, such as wind, weather, height restrictions, and other various factors."

Drones may not yet be ready to replace traffic helicopters, but where drones can help radio in the immediate future could be with multimedia offerings on a radio station's digital offerings and social media, with exclusive video coverage of breaking news reports, plus footage of area live events, including station events. They can also help reporters see from higher and wider angles than they ever could before with their naked eyes.

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration is currently in the process of finalizing a set of rules and guidelines for broadcast outlets and drone operators in regards to how these machines can be used (in addition to the FAA regulations). The NAB and RTDNA have jointly petitioned the NTIA to make sure the regulations do not infringe upon the First Amendment rights of news and media outlets. They are asking that the NTIA "outcomes do not unduly restrict or penalize the important and protected newsgathering activities of media organizations. The NAB and RTDNA want the NTIA's rule-making process to be "guided by the overarching principle that the government must refrain from actions adversely impacting the ability of journalists to bring important news stories to the American public."

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concerns over privacy issues with the expanded use of drones, as well.

While there are still a few more legal details to be worked out, it just may be the dawn of the drone era -- an era radio will most likely be a part of.

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