Americans are tuning into local news at increasing rates to stay connected to their communities during this time of social distancing. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, local TV stations are seeing a significant increase in viewers — but revenue growth hasn’t followed because fewer advertisers are willing to spend the money.

In some ways, this reflects the typical struggles facing media outlets. There’s always a demand for a high volume of quality content, but budgets can be tight. That’s especially true at the moment, with the pandemic slowing companies across the world.

It’s one reason news broadcasters and media companies are rapidly adopting drones. In 2016, the media and entertainment drone services market was valued at $8.8 billion, and it’s no surprise: drones can deliver astonishing aerial footage, easily fit in the back of a van, and be deployed at a moment’s notice. Of course, drones can be more than just a flying camera — they can gather data of all types, including infrared scans, topographical maps, and 3D models.

Ultimately, they can help studios save a whole lot of money. This is especially important now that many stations are faced with decreased advertising revenue even as viewership is increasing.

Yet sometimes, it can be hard to know where to get started. You want to keep your crews and operations safe from pitfalls, and there’s a lot of potential liability that comes with a drone program. How can your media company establish a successful drone program while accounting for safety and efficiency?

Here are four tips for news media companies looking to make the most of drones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1.  Look to drone footage and beyond

When following social distancing guidelines, safely collecting footage can be a challenge. This is an area in which drones can prove immediately useful: crews can shoot video while remaining hundreds of feet away from their subject.

When you’re starting with drones, be sure to choose a few use cases that quickly show the value and potential for the technology. Make sure drones are supporting your business goals — flying drones aimlessly is a sure way to have your program stall out.

For a news station, reporting is one obvious go-to use case. Stations have used drones to get aerial views of tornado damage, train derailments, construction projects, and much more. But that’s only a start. Here’s a list to consider:

  • Action sequences, 360-degree views, and seamless rising shots from zero to 400 feet off the ground
  • Getting movie, b-roll, hard news, and feature footage that used to require cranes or crewed aircraft, or just weren’t possible
  • Weather and traffic reporting
  • Capturing indoor and underground aerial footage: tunnels, warehouses, hangars
  • Gathering news about unfolding disasters from above — the aftermath of earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes — when it’s too dangerous for crews to get close
  • Reporting on sports, like live drone shots of golf tournaments
  • Improving ad production quality
  • Renting out your drone services to other businesses, studios, or stations
  • Filming 360-degree video and using virtual reality to create immersive digital environments, which can help viewers to find more connection to the world during this time of isolation

With so many options, it’s crucial to be clear up front about your goals for drones. Be specific about the benefits you’re after in terms of money, time, crew safety, risk, and keeping up with competitors. 

2. Analyze your program’s costs — and the savings

In order to scale your drone program, you need to be able to address a key pain point for your executives: Are drones worth the financial investment? You’ll want to prepare a cost analysis that takes into account both costs and savings. While there are clear current use cases during this pandemic, you’ll want to be sure to account for long-term program costs, too.

Since a standard commercial-grade drone costs anywhere between $1,000 to $15,000, a drone program might seem to be a significant investment. But comparatively, a helicopter outfitted with cameras and broadcast equipment costs as much as $850,000 to purchase and about $500 per hour to fly. And crewed aircraft can cost a filmmaker from $20,000 to $40,000 for a 10-hour, one-day shoot.

On the other hand, a top-of-the-line drone contractor may charge $4,500 to $13,000 a day, including crew, equipment and insurance. And if you bring your drone program in-house, the savings tend upward from there due to very low hourly operating costs. While drones can’t entirely replace helicopters, they can replace some essential functions, saving huge amounts of money — especially when fuel costs are taken into account.

When accounting for your costs, don’t forget to include supporting equipment, software and tools to process footage and data, and cost of pilots. 

3. Have a plan for safety and regulatory compliance

Business decision makers also want to understand how to run things safely and legally. What’s the plan for abiding by privacy and regulatory rules? How will you check airspace information and flight restrictions? How are crews held accountable in the field?

Done right, drone programs should improve worker safety. Camera crews can stay further from hazards and avoid working from height to get the shot they need. To achieve this and reduce other risks, be sure you have the right protocols, software, and hardware. An aviation management platform like Skyward’s lets drone pilots and managers:

  • Plan, fly, and log missions
  • Check controlled airspace and get access in seconds
  • Manage flight crews at multiple sites while keeping data centralized
  • Track all the drones, batteries, and personnel in your fleet
  • View historical data for every flight logged
  • Record all this information in a digital system for easy reporting, with access to anyone in the organization who needs it

4. Be ready for tomorrow’s ops for drones in media

Drones are incredibly useful right now, but the technology is just getting started. Today, Skyward is working to connect drones to existing 4G LTE networks, enabling amazing capabilities. And with Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband cellular network rolling out across the U.S., many uses for drones may soon be supercharged for daily news, moviemaking, and media studios.

For example, flights that go beyond visual line of sight will likely become a normal part of operations, extending access for film studios and news crews. In the future, operators  may be able to deploy drones to autonomously monitor traffic or weather patterns daily at the push of a button. And 5G-connected drones will be able to live stream high definition video with virtually no lag.

Regulations are in development today that may lay the groundwork for the connected drones of the future. So be sure to plan ahead for the technologies that will help your company achieve its goals — and keep up with your competitors. If you’re looking for a place to start, Skyward’s Professional Services team can discuss what it takes to have a forward-looking drone program today.

How Skyward helps drones in media

Skyward helps film studios, news stations, and other media companies stand up successful drone programs and scale enterprise fleets. We’re preparing resources for drone programs that are on hold due to the coronavirus, including free educational content and remote training opportunities.

To read more about Skyward and the media industry, download Skyward’s Guide: Drones for Media.

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