Adding Drones to the Workflow: News and Media

Senior Product Manager, Co-founder at Skyward

If you work at a news or media organization, chances are you’re beginning to see the advantages and efficiencies that drones can add to your operations. In the past months, I’ve spoken to representatives from dozens of traditional and digital news agencies who are eager to incorporate the technology into their toolkits.

Besides the regulatory issues, which we’ve covered in previous articles, one challenge that you may face is figuring out how to fit drones into a well-established content workflow. Let’s take a look at some of these hurdles and how to navigate the early phases of a drone program so that you can enjoy the advantages of being an early adopter, with fewer of the headaches.

Ideally, you’d want to streamline your drone operations to make them as similar as possible to using a camera on the ground. There’s only so much space in a news van after all (and only so much room in the budget). Thankfully, the average drone and controller aren’t particularly bulky, but you will need to bring extra batteries and chargers (a typical battery can power a drone for roughly 25 minutes of flight; check out this article for best practices on managing batteries).

Of course, you still need someone who’s trained and licensed to fly it, someone to control the camera if necessary (Phantoms don’t allow for a separate camera operator), and someone to act as an observer.

That’s a lot of personnel — and salary — to add to an already cramped space and an already tight budget. The good news is that you can likely integrate these roles into the duties of personnel who are already present, and the only truly new addition you’ll have to make is the drone pilot and the equipment. Let’s take a look at the camera operator and observer roles.

Drone camera operator

The camera on a drone typically is mounted on a three-axis gimbal, and for purposes of gathering usable news footage, you’ll want it to be stabilized and equipped with a zoom function. One adjustment the operator will need to make is learning to use the camera controller, which typically relies on a joystick to change orientation. Here are two quick tips to prevent potential issues:

  1. Never keep the camera pointed at the ground during landing to prevent damage to the lens.
  2. As you’re getting started, it can be helpful to keep the camera oriented in the direction the drone is facing in order to avoid directional confusion when communicating with the pilot. As you become more experienced, you’ll be able to maximize the capabilities of your three-axis gimbal without losing your bearings. Also, the Inspire 2 has a fixed camera in addition to the gimballed camera, which is great for helping pilots to keep their bearings.

Speaking of communication, it’s vital that the camera operator and the drone pilot practice together extensively in order to develop a rapport, as conversation about the shots will need to be kept to a minimum during the flight itself. There should be clear and practiced protocol for the observer to communicate with the pilot with urgency and priority, so that the person flying the drone can be alerted to potential safety issues without being subject to needless distractions. Make sure to discuss the flight path and plan the shots you need ahead of time.

Drone observer

The observer is responsible for helping the pilot maintain the safety and legality of flight operations by keeping an eye on the sky and the area underneath the flight path. To cut down on extra personnel, it’s entirely possible that this role can be filled by a reporter or journalist, but they will require training and practice – it’s not so simple as staring at the sky. First, the observer needs to be knowledgeable about regulations governing commercial drone flight, e.g., no flying over people, yielding right of way to manned aircraft, etc.

Effective communication is key, and that means using an efficient and clear vocabulary to communicate potential hazards. This also means the observer should refrain from speaking to the operator during flight unless it pertains to safety. A reporter must be able to separate the desire to capture the news from the role of a safety worker.

Managing a drone program

Something else to consider: Who is in charge of tracking, maintaining, and authorizing drone usage within your organization? Adding an entirely new position and salary to your budget might undercut the savings and gains from adding drones in the first place, so you might consider offering the responsibilities to an existing employee. Someone who’s already familiar with managing A/V technology might be a good fit, or perhaps the lead pilot could take charge.

Skyward is an excellent way to make the process of administering your drone program easier and more efficient. You can use the maintenance tracker and flight log to ensure your drones are flying safely, and the constantly updated airspace map is a fantastic resource for planning flights and maintaining the legality of your operations. Take Flight, Skyward’s General Operating Manual, comes equipped with checklists and processes, which are a must if you want to operate safely, efficiently, and professionally.

Of course, drones aren’t the only new technology changing the face of news production. Social media and live streaming are part of the fabric of media these days, and established news organizations are now competing more than ever before with freelance or amateur content creators. Unmanned aerial vehicles represent an area where the media industry can leverage its capital and infrastructure to provide differentiated, higher-quality content. The opportunity here is to integrate aerial imaging and traditional journalism, with minimum disruption to the workflow of how news organizations gather footage.