Going Where People Can’t: Drones in Broadcast Media

Marketing Intern at Skyward

If you’ve looked into implementing drones as a newsgathering tool, you’ve probably seen some of the innovative ways that drones can support broadcast operations. If you haven’t heard about the great results they can bring, start with these five stories from The New York Times—major journalistic features that used drones to tell spectacular stories in remote, sensitive, or inaccessible areas.

But what sets drones apart as a unique journalistic tool? After all, many aerial shots could be obtained with a helicopter, though with a much higher price tag. What stories can drones tell that are dangerous or impossible for either ground crews or helicopters to capture?

Disaster Coverage

This probably comes as no surprise, but drones are ideal tools for covering natural and industrial disasters. Since drones are portable, fast to deploy, and, if necessary, quick to bring down, they can be flown in the brief breaks in a storm, long before it would be safe to fly aircraft in the area. They are able hover just feet above damaged buildings—capturing a much closer perspective than a helicopter—without requiring a camera operator enter a highly unstable area.

Many news stations are already using drones for disaster coverage. After Cyclone Debbie made landfall in Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC News) was one of the first crews on the scene. They captured compelling drone footage of the damage to one neighborhood during a half-hour break in the storm—breaking news which would have been impossible to obtain from the ground or by chopper.

Similarly, NBC News used drones to cover devastating floods in Louisiana last year, depicting submerged houses, forests turned into lakes, and streets covered by mud. USA Today used a drone to broadcast the damage from earthquakes in Italy, showing the ruins of ancient structures and modern neighborhoods alike.

Drones are ideal for covering urban or industrial disasters, too. NBC News shot drone footage of a huge industrial fire engulfing a steel manufacturing plant in upstate New York, showing the plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky. Drones from the Australian ABC News shot footage of an industrial recycling plant fire that threatened to burn down a neighborhood.

Of course, drone operators must be extremely careful and remain vigilant of their surroundings, especially when covering disasters. Disasters are often the site of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), and interfering with a firefighting aircraft or other emergency operations can be a serious crime. Be sure to check a valid, updated airspace map before and during your flight, and contact the appropriate airspace coordinator during an emergency to make sure it’s safe to fly.

Out-of-Reach Perspectives

Aerial coverage doesn’t always mean video from 100-plus feet in the air. Sometimes you just want a shot from 15 or 20 feet up, just enough to see over nearby obstacles. Without a drone, that means a camera operator has to climb up a ladder, onto a vehicle, or stand on a rooftop to get that angle—a dangerous and sometimes fruitless proposition. And a helicopter can rarely fly that low without causing a major disturbance.

Drones are perfect for shots that are just out of reach. They can film just above the rooftops of a neighborhood, or shoot video just high enough to see the true size of a crowd (without flying directly over them). Drones are capable of filming from the ground up, making seamless shots from zero to 400 feet in the air. Drone footage is perfect for putting an object into perspective—be that a person, structure, event, or incident.

Plus, you can fly right up to buildings, monuments, and statues, capturing them in their surroundings. For example, one of Raycom Media’s local stations was recently able to use a drone to film a new perspective of a monument which was slated to be taken down in New Orleans. Just be sure you plan your flight and know the area where you’ll be flying—you don’t want to run into any unexpected hazards.

Indoor Aerial Footage

Because most drones are relatively compact, they can operate inside of buildings, opening new avenues for indoor usage. Drones are already commonly being used inside of houses for real estate videos, but interior filming has value far beyond that.

The Seattle Times shot drone footage of the interior of a huge highway tunnel in the process of being excavated, likening the results to flying inside of a space station. French production company BigFly captured stunning drone video of the interior of a Byzantine church that is more than 135 years old.

As long as you operate safely, you can be creative with your inside drone filming. Did your local university recently remodel its basketball stadium? Can you check out the inside of a new skyscraper or the atrium of a new architectural marvel? Could drones help you investigate the inside of a warehouse or hangar, showing how huge it truly is?

Of course, you’ll need to get permission from property owners before you can enter a building, and you’ll need to make sure you have enough room to operate. Once inside, you’ll need to establish safe practices that take the particulars of indoor flying into account, and you’ll need an especially skilled pilot to avoid the increased number of obstacles.

Sports Broadcasting

Some of the greatest future possibilities for drone journalism are in sports broadcasting. Though sports already provide video coverage of nearly every possible angle in an arena, drones have the agility necessary to cover the last few areas that remain inaccessible.

Of course, being forbidden to fly over people makes this much more difficult, and most professional stadiums are surrounded by controlled airspace for this very reason. As of now, drones can’t operate in a full stadium, limiting their use for game-time sports. But even though live broadcasting opportunities may still lie in the future, drones are finding their way into sports coverage today.

Fox Sports is already working on implementing drones into their major league sports broadcasts, noting that drones can get much closer to the action than either aircraft or Spidercams, and without any wires that could get in the way of play. Though drones can’t be used during live matches, Fox has found success using drones for pregame shots of the stadium and surrounding area. In addition, Fox used drones to create aerial overviews of several holes for the U.S. Open, providing viewers with context for what the golfers are up against.

While your company may not be permitted to use drones to cover professional stadium sports, consider covering minor league, college, high school, and club sports with drones. If you can obtain permission from the necessary parties and find a place to operate without flying over people (or get a waiver from the FAA that allows you to do so), you may be able to provide aerial coverage from just beyond the fences. This could be a huge bonus for covering local sports—and provide great publicity for your station.

*Top image not captured via drone

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