Media Companies: What to Know About Using Drones

Senior Product Manager, Co-founder at Skyward

The media and news industry is in the business of gathering footage and information about rapidly unfolding events. In the past, when a story called for aerial imaging, a news station’s only option was to fly a helicopter over a site. Between the costs of the aircraft, the pilot’s time, hangar space, camera equipment, and safety training, operating a helicopter represents a significant financial outlay. Now that drones are becoming widespread, and regulations governing their use are better defined, many media organizations are seeing the opportunity to reduce the costs of gathering footage from the air and increase the overall efficiency of their operations.

Now, before you run out and buy a drone for your media company, here are a couple of caveats: Drones can’t replace news helicopters outright, at least at this point, due to Part 107 regulations restricting drone flight in certain common situations, such as flying over people—not to mention a helicopter can carry a much heavier payload. And, though they may pose less risk to their surroundings in the event of an accident, drones should not be seen as a way to avoid pursuing safe and reliable flight practices. A drone flight is still aviation, even though no human sits in the cockpit, and it requires careful planning and execution.

Let’s dive into Part 107 (check out our free guide here) and see how it affects the type of work a news/media drone might do, and go over some of the best practices we’ve learned from our experience managing commercial UAS operations.

Planning drone flights

The nature of the news makes it difficult to choose where and when to fly. After all, a train derailment happens where it happens, and it won’t move a hundred yards to accommodate an airspace restriction. That said, planning your flights using Skyward or another validated drone airspace map is the best way to ensure that you’re complying with these restrictions.

If the flight is in controlled or restricted airspace, you may need to coordinate with air traffic control or apply for a regulatory waiver in order to fly—this process takes time, which is a luxury in short supply in the media industry. If you need to fly directly over people not involved in the operation, that also requires a waiver from the FAA. Waivers are also required if you need to fly at night or beyond line of sight. These kinds of restrictions are part of the reason why drones are currently unable to supplant helicopters for use cases like traffic or crime scene reporting.

Tip: Apply for waivers now, before you need them. Approved waivers last for 24 months, so if you know you’ll need to overfly people or fly in a certain class of airspace, request now. You’ll need to prove to the FAA the steps you’ll take to ensure that your flights aren’t increasing risks to people or property, on the ground or in the air.

Commercial operators that can provide sufficient evidence of equivalent levels of safety can apply for permission to conduct the following types of operations:

  • Operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft
  • Night flights
  • Flying beyond visual line of sight
  • Alternate methods for use of a visual observer
  • One pilot operating multiple UAS at once
  • Not being required to yield right of way
  • Direct overflight of people
  • Operation in Class B, C, D, or E surface area airspace
  • Exceptions to certain sUAS operating limitations

Consult this article for tips on submitting a successful waiver application.

Even without a waiver, there are still plenty of opportunities for media organizations to use drones, and it’s important to plan every operation to ensure compliance. Looking at an airspace map, carve out a flight area that contains your crew’s rally point and takeoff and landing sites. Mark points of interest and hazards such as power lines, cell towers, roads, or high-traffic pedestrian areas. Remember to share the flight plan with the entire flight crew and go over it in detail, and make sure that the appropriate UAVs and their corresponding batteries are available.

If you have time to wrangle with the waiver process, there may be a way to work with regulators even in the event of a temporary flight restriction, but don’t settle for verbal approval—insist on getting it in writing. When you’re getting close to the flight day, be sure to monitor the weather. If it’s raining, snowing, foggy, or very cold, a drone may not be the right tool for the job.

Build strong and consistent processes for drone flights

It’s important to develop a strong general operating manual that establishes all the safety procedures and operational practices that your pilots are required to follow for every flight. Aviation has run on checklists for more than a century, including preflight, in-flight, postflight, and emergency checklists. Checklists remove variables and lower risks by ensuring that complex processes and procedures are carried out the same way every time. Even though every flight is different, you can at least be certain that the same safety procedures apply across all your operations – after all, you don’t want to become a news story yourself after an embarrassing or dangerous incident with your drone.

At Skyward, we’ve created our own 130-page general operating manual and operational checklists (download a preview here) in collaboration with aviators, UAV experts, regulators, and insurance providers.

Using drones to report on emergencies

Drones are already being used to gather news about natural disasters around the world. During last year’s catastrophic floods in Louisiana, NBC News flew a UAV above the ravaged landscape. That footage showed the extent of the damage to local communities and made the effects of climate change more immediate than ever. After earthquakes rattled central Italy in October 2016, a drone was there to record the aftermath as hundreds of years of architecture lay in rubble and dust. The New York Times shared drone footage that captured the destruction of Aleppo and showed the world the horror of the Syrian Civil War. The New York Times also released a list of five stories from 2016 that featured drone photography, demonstrating a wider range of uses for the technology beyond filming disaster areas.

The advantages of the technology in these cases are clear: it allows news agencies to fly in conditions that would be hazardous or inaccessible to conventional aviation, at a lower cost, and with a smaller footprint. But as we mentioned before, there are certain restrictions that constrain more generalized use of drones in these capacities. Let’s go into more depth on a few of the more relevant regulations in the United States:

Flying over people: Per the FAA, “Organizations may request a waiver under Part 107 to fly over people, and will need to provide sufficient mitigations to ensure public safety.” If you want to capture footage of a crowded public area, you will have to apply for a waiver, or arrange for security to block off any pedestrian areas inside the flight area. If the only people below the drone’s flight path are involved with your operation, you can consider them participants and, so long as they are briefed about safety procedures, the flight can proceed.

Flying over private property: Part 107 does not require permission to overfly private property but it may still be an excellent practice, depending on the situation—use good judgment. Certain municipalities require permission to fly on private property, so consult your local ordinances. The FAA refers to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Voluntary Best Practices for UAS Privacy,23 as well as local trespassing ordinances. Part 107 does specify that you cannot directly overfly any person not participating in your operation, or endanger people or property on the ground, but it doesn’t specify a minimum distance.

Flying at night: Without a waiver, you cannot fly a drone at night. However, you can fly during civil twilight (approximately 30 minutes after sunset or before sunrise) so long as your drone is outfitted with aviation lights visible for three statute miles. Certain drones come standard with these lights, but others do not (DJI, for example). Make sure to check your equipment before operating in these conditions.

Flying near a wildfire: Though this might seem a perfect use for drones, what with the haunting imagery of the smoke-clogged sky and the intrepid firefighters blasting away at the blaze with high-powered water cannons, the airspace around forest fires is heavily restricted – and with good reason. Thanks to the aforementioned heavy smoke, visibility is severely reduced, and the airspace is likely to be clogged with helicopters providing much-needed support to firefighters on the ground. The risks for a midair collision are increased greatly in these conditions. Per the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 43 CFR 9212.1(f), it is illegal to resist or interfere with the efforts of firefighter(s) to extinguish a fire. This means that your drone operation, well-intentioned and unobtrusive as it might be, could affect the firefighters’ ability to do their job, putting their equipment and personnel in danger, as well as jeopardizing the surrounding areas whose very existence depends on the containment of the fire.

If you represent a media company and want to build or expand your drone program, be sure to check out some of our other resources for tips on scaling, gaining buy-in from leadership, or finding qualified pilots across the country with Skyward’s Pilot Finder.