Should Media Companies Use Freelance Drone Pilots?

Senior Product Manager, Co-founder at Skyward

News and media companies across the country are establishing or bolstering their in-house drone programs: building their processes and protocols, exploring the potentials of the technology, and training personnel. Most of these drone programs will be local to the media outlet, and it won’t be realistic to send drone pilots to cover news events in other areas. And for smaller outlets, there may not be budget to staff an internal drone program, no matter how small. When the need arises for high-quality aerial footage on a tight deadline, hiring a freelance or contract drone video journalist is a practical option.

This so-called hybrid model has found success in the construction and engineering sectors. Sometimes you need to deploy a drone to a remote area quickly to capture an unfolding situation, or moving equipment and personnel to a site could be too inefficient, or a private contractor may have more experience flying in sensitive conditions (such as near cellular towers, transmission lines, or in adverse weather).

Whatever the reasons for doing so, hiring a freelance drone operator is a decision that should not be taken lightly, for several reasons, but first and foremost: You don’t want to expose your company to risk by working with someone who operates unsafely or violates Part 107 or other regulations. And of course, you want to ensure the quality of the footage you receive will be usable.

The good news is that there are plenty of reputable and professional freelancers out there who do great work and respect the law. The bad news is that there are some opportunists who simply want to cash in on new technology and who don’t care about regulations.

Here are some tips on how to thoroughly vet drone footage contractors and freelancers.

Confirm Drone Insurance

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: a general liability insurance policy is a must when operating a drone commercially. Having insurance is a positive sign of professionalism, showing that the contractor has a commitment to best practices and has gone through the process of proving the safety of their operations to their insurer. In order to get the best rates, the operator has a strong incentive to develop robust safety protocols, chiefly a thorough general operating manual. This works in everyone’s favor.

This is apart from the obvious practical benefit of being absolved of potential liability for damages to a third party in the unlikely event of a crash or accident. Even if an operator follows best practices, technology, and training, always require liability insurance.

Proper Certification

Ensure that your freelancers are certified to operate commercially in your jurisdiction. In some countries, such as the United States, there are different requirements for professionals than for hobbyists. For example, in order to fly commercially in the U.S., a pilot must obtain a remote pilot certificate from the FAA. This certificate proves that the operator has passed a test that covers the legal and safety requirements for flying drones. Someone who has passed this test cannot claim ignorance on matters of airspace restrictions, and has at least a baseline knowledge of safety protocols.

To further assess the knowledge of a potential contractor is to ask them to give you a basic overview of the rules. Ask them how they determine whether a flight is legal, and under what conditions they would need to apply for a waiver. Ask for a copy of their operating manual. Get a sense of how they approach regulations and safety practices, to see whether they’re simply – pardon the pun – flying by the seat of their pants. Here are a few sample questions you might ask:

  1. What is the maximum altitude for a drone? (A: Generally 400 feet)
  2. When can you fly over people? (A: Never, minus a waiver)
  3. What class of airspace is are you allowed to fly in, in most cases? (A: Class G)
  4. How do you ensure your aircraft are well maintained? (A: They should have some sort of tracking system for when maintenance was performed.)

Skyward’s free guide to Part 107 can give you a good baseline of the rules and ideas for questions to ask.

Ask for Drone Footage Clips

Since drones are a relatively new addition to the media toolkit, it may be difficult to find freelancers with an extensive portfolio. Nevertheless, their capabilities should not just exist in theory; they should be proven with high-quality footage and many hours of flight experience. The best way to learn how to fly a drone is by getting out there and flying, and tracking those practice hours is a key sign of an accountability-minded pilot.

When evaluating the quality of the footage itself, check to see that they know how to keep the camera stable. Check that they aren’t flying too high – this can be difficult to assess from the eye test, but look at nearby structures and use them as a rough guide. Check that they can track an object on the ground. These clips can also be used to confirm that they are operating legally – which leads us to our next tip.

Check Their Flight Areas Against a Drone Airspace Map

When your pilots submit footage, either as part of the interview process or for an actual story, ask them for a flight plan, some coordinates, or even a nearby landmark. Simply plug that information into a validated, updated airspace map such as Skyward’s, and you can see see whether the flight was performed within the bounds of the law. Of course, sometimes you can tell simply by looking at the footage that it was obtained illegally. If the flight was performed at night, or over crowds of people, or it shows a major airport, then odds are (unless the pilot obtained a waiver from the FAA) that you shouldn’t work with that freelancer.

Can’t Find Any Qualified Pilots? Try Pilot Finder

Skyward’s Pilot Finder is an excellent resource if you’re looking to hire a freelance drone operator. Anyone who lists themselves on Pilot Finder can showcase their areas of expertise, total and historical flight hours, qualifications and certificates, equipment, insurance coverage, and experience. You can sort by a number of fields, including service area, and pick which operators fit with the overall aims of the project at hand.

*Photo by Azis Pradana via Unsplash

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