When it comes to the field of entertainment, drones have made a decisive impact on how productions are filmed. It would be hard to find a film or television show that does not use a drone in some filming capacity. With a drone, film crews can get a unique aerial point of view that is crystal clear and far less expensive than traditional methods of filming with a helicopter. Drones can also be used to get in for an up close perspective in action sequences that could be difficult to capture with a manned camera. Not only are drones being used behind the scenes, but they have also become major story plots in countless shows and films. But perhaps the media area in which drones have had the greatest impact is that of journalism.
Broadcast journalism is a highly competitive field, and using drones can give news crews the leading edge they need to adequately report the news. Today nearly every television news channel has a drone division. As the COO of News and Operations with Fox Television Stations and President of Fox Weather, Sharri Berg pointed out, it would be highly unusual for any news crew to go out without bringing along a drone today. “It has found a place on the regular newsgathering equipment checklist,” she said. “When you go out the door, you make sure to take a camera, microphones, a streaming kit, and a drone.” But this was not always the case.
The first time a drone was used in news broadcasting was in 2013 by the world’s oldest national news broadcasting channel, the BBC. The following year a DJI Phantom drone was used by the Daily Dot to film the collapse of a building in Harlem, NY. When drones were first emerging into fields beyond the military and hobby use, there was a lot of concern that they could be used nefariously to spy on people. By 2016, most of these fears had been assuaged, and the FAA recognized just how valuable and popular drones were becoming. The FAA began granting special waivers to coincide with the Part 107, the license required for all commercial drone operations, that would grant news crews greater freedoms to use drones. Leading up to the FAA’s granting leniency for reporters using drones, a professor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) established an entire program dedicated to drones for journalists.
Matt Waite earned his Bachelor of Journalism degree in 1997 from UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Upon his graduation, Matt became interested in how modern interfaces, like the internet, were affecting how news is reported. He developed a website called PolitiFact to fact check politicians that went on to be the first website to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. Matt returned to UNL to become a Professor of Practice in Journalism, where in 2012 he founded the Drone Journalism Lab to explore how to safely integrate drones into news broadcasting.
The main focus of the Drone Journalism Lab was to study the practicality, along with the legal and ethical implications of drones in journalism. The work done in the lab has led to how drones have been successfully implemented for news reporters throughout the United States. As Matt explains, being able to use drones to report the news goes beyond being a way to get quality images. Drones help tell a story that could be hard to express otherwise. “If you’ve ever covered a hurricane, large tornado, or flood, you know that it gets really hard to describe to people in any meaningful way just how massive the damage is,” Matt said. “It’s hard, in words and ground based images, to convey scope and scale. I covered hurricanes in Florida, tornadoes in Arkansas, and all kinds of disasters in between and it was frustrating as a writer to try to get people to understand the size of it all. A drone is a purpose-built context machine. It can give people that understanding in just a few seconds of video, a few frames of still photos.”
In the past, news reporters would rely on helicopters to get these images. And while most stations still have and use helicopters, drones have become the go to standard for any aerial shots. Most studios now own multiple drones and have a complete crew of highly trained pilots. As previously stated, anyone operating a drone commercially needs to obtain a Part 107 that proves they are knowledgeable and competent drone operators. When it comes to drones being used by news crews, the pilots are held to a higher standard because they often have to fly in areas around people, other drones, indoors, or even at night. “We provide extensive education and training to our pilots who fly night missions, which teach them how to use lights and navigate safely in this environment,” said Rebecca Kesten, Fox News coordinating producer and drone pilot. “We also train some of our pilots to fly indoor missions and flights over people, which requires additional skills and solid flight experience.”
When the FAA began granting special waivers to news drones in 2016, the media drone market exploded. In 2016, drones in the media worldwide were valued at around $2 billion and were projected to grow to $127 billion in the future. The future is here, and drones have become a permanent fixture in how media reaches the masses. Drones in commercial media are creating hundreds of job opportunities and keeping viewers engaged, informed, and entertained.