News media coalition testing unmanned aircraft systems at Tech


By Emily Hughes, 

A coalition of 15 leading news media organizations around the country is testing unmanned aircraft systems in Blacksburg.

The organizations have come together “to develop safety standards for the use of unmanned aircraft systems for news gathering,” according to the adviser to the news media coalition, Joel Roberson of Holland & Knight law firm.

The coalition has entered into a contract with Virginia Tech to undergo drone testing this summer to establish standards for how drones could be used to gather and report news in the future.

“The expectation is, as with a number of other industries, that unmanned aircraft systems would provide unique and innovative ways to gather the needed perspective that we currently don’t have today for news stories,” Roberson said. “Or if we do, if we are able to capture them, it requires a great expense.”

Such expenses and risks include hiring pilots and the possibility of aircrafts crashing or malfunctioning, Roberson said.

“In addition, when you’re covering a news story, it’s often in dangerous situations where there is … weather coming in that is the subject of your report — for instance, before or after a hurricane or a tornado or an earthquake,” Roberson said.

In other dangerous situations such as fires or hostage situations that would put manned aircraft systems at risk, unmanned systems provide a cost-effective way to capture images without putting individuals at risk.

Drone testing will be done in two phases. The first phase began on Tuesday, June 16 and involved both classroom and flight training in a remote location.

Phase one is taking place over three days each this week, next week and the week following and will involve around 60 people, said General Counsel for the National Press Photographer’s Association Mickey Osterreicher.

“There’s an airstrip in northern Virginia where the Virginia Tech pilots … are providing classroom training for ‘how do you set up a flight plan,’ ‘how do you safely choose a launch and landing location,’ ‘how do you pilot the aircraft in a safe manner,’” Roberson said, “and they actually put reporters and photographers behind the controls of that aircraft and allowed them to fly in this remote location.”

“Virginia Tech has developed a series of scenarios — typical use scenarios — for unmanned aircraft systems, and they are running … flights using those scenarios,” Roberson said.

Simulating a cat stuck in a tree is a basic example of one such scenario. A more complex scenario might be a building fire or an oil rig explosion, in which there are concerns about how to safely launch and capture images.

“Those will all be done in a remote location without obstacles and without people in the first phase … (which) will run for three weeks with three different groups of reporters, photographers coming in to be trained,” Roberson said.

Phase two, which will begin later this summer, will build in additional complexities to these scenarios — there will be a simulated urban environment with buildings, obstacles and people that the unmanned aircraft system pilot will have to navigate using a flight plan, Roberson said.

“There is lots of interest amongst the media in developing a better understanding of how unmanned aircrafts will change the way that the business of news is done,” Roberson said. “This (coalition) is the first time that the reporter or the photographer has gotten behind the controls of an unmanned aircraft system to test … (it) for news gathering.”

He estimates that someday, unmanned aircraft systems will be industry standard.

According to a press release issued by law firm Holland & Knight LLP, the 15 news media companies involved are American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.; Advance Publications, Inc.; A. H. Belo Corporation; The Associated Press; Capitol Broadcasting Co.; The E.W. Scripps Company; Fusion; Gannett Co., Inc.; Getty Images (US), Inc.; NBCUniversal; The New York Times Company; Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.; Thomson Reuters (Markets), LLC; Univision; and The Washington Post.