By Gerry Smith
A group of 10 U.S. media companies, including the New York Times Co. (NYT), the Associated Press and NBCUniversal, will test the use of drones for news gathering, seeking to persuade the government to broaden the commercial use of the small unmanned aircraft.
The news organizations will join Virginia Tech University to study the use of drones at one of six test areas approved by Congress, according to a statement today.
The media companies are trying to gain U.S. approval for the use of drones to cover breaking news events that would otherwise be too expensive or dangerous to capture in person. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the commercial use of the small aircraft, though it has made some exceptions.
“The AP is excited to join with these other leading media companies in exploring the safe and responsible use of drone technology for news gathering purposes that further our understanding of current events,” Santiago Lyon, the news wire’s director of photography, said in the statement.
Other media companies that will participate in the drone testing are Advance Publications Inc., A.H. Belo Corp., Gannett Co., Getty Images, E.W. Scripps Co., Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and the Washington Post.
CNN said on Jan. 12 that it will also begin testing the use of drones for news gathering in partnership with Georgia Tech Research Institute.
The widespread interest in unmanned aircraft is another example of how news organizations are embracing technology for reporting at a time when many are reducing staff members to cut costs. Last year, the Los Angeles Times published a story about an earthquake that had been written by a computer algorithm.
The FAA is working to establish rules to regulate the commercial use of drones that have become increasingly popular with civilians, and the agency has made some exceptions to its ban. Some film companies have been given permission to use drones and they have been approved to inspect oilfield equipment, map farmland and photograph homes for real estate marketing.
The FAA, however, typically requires drone operators to notify the agency three days in advance. News organizations say giving such notice would be impossible because breaking news is unpredictable.
Drones offer several potential benefits for newsrooms. Unmanned helicopters and fixed-wing planes can be bought at hobby shops and online for less than $1,000. By comparison, it costs news outlets about $1,500 per hour to rent a helicopter and owning one can cost “hundreds of thousands” of dollars each year for pilots, fuel, maintenance and other expenses, said Matt Waite, a journalism professor at University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Drones also would enable news organizations to film in locations where few journalists would be willing to go. Last fall, CBS’s “60 Minutes” used a drone to capture aerial footage of the villages around Chernobyl, which has been largely abandoned after a nuclear plant explosion in 1986.
The use of drones for journalism also raises potential safety and privacy issues, especially near densely packed crowds where news and sporting events often take place. In 2013, a drone crashed into a grandstand at Virginia Motorsports Park, causing minor injuries to several spectators during an event.
At least 44 states have proposed or enacted laws that restrict the use of drones, according to Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, which advocates the use of unmanned aircraft for news gathering. In addition, most news organizations don’t have insurance that would cover drone accidents, Waite said.
“I get phone calls from editors who say ‘Hey, we’re going to buy a drone. What should we buy?’ I say ‘Hold on a second. Do you know the rules here?” Waite said.
The FAA’s current ban on the use of drones for journalism has not deterred some hobbyists from sharing their drone footage of breaking news events with news outlets. News organizations say they want to use drones themselves.
“We view this as just another tool for news gathering, like a satellite truck or a helicopter,” Osterreicher said. “And hopefully a more cost-efficient and safe one.”