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Drone wars: ArrowData on the use of unmanned craft at news events

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drone demo
ArrowData

ArrowData demonstrates its drone

Since Nevada was designated as one of six federally approved test sites for unmanned aircraft systems last year, the state has a lot riding on the backs of drones — a more diverse economic future, for starters. But the tiny copters are increasingly creating huge problems, from invading people's privacy to endangering their lives. After drones delayed U.S. Forest Service crews battling a July 17 brush fire that jumped I-15 and burned several cars, NPR reported that at least four other, similar incidents have occurred this summer.

What are the existing rules about drones in breaking-news situations? And can the media use images gathered if, in the process of gathering them, the drones posed a threat to public safety? We asked Ron Futrell, spokesman for Las Vegas-based ArrowData, which in April got the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval to operate drones for electronic newsgathering.

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Was ArrowData involved in any of the recent incidents where drones interfered with firefighting operations?

No. In fact, I would guess there were no legitimate companies that have exemptions from the FAA in any of those situations.

Why?

In situations like that — a wildfire in the desert, for instance — the agencies in charge put together a TFR, a temporary flight restriction, so anything that goes airborne during that time has to have prior approval and be in communication with everyone else who is flying in the area. That would prohibit any legal drone from having been in the Cajon Pass fire (and grounding the Forest Service planes). The fact that there was a TFR and they didn’t know who it was, that’s what told them it was a hobbyist.

Does that preclude companies such as ArrowData from gathering news footage?

In the future — again, with our FAA approval — we may be able to ask for permission to fly in those areas, knowing what the restrictions are and that we’d be in communication with whoever is running the air traffic control in that immediate area.

How does it work now?

Two weeks ago, we flew (drones) over Candlestick Park in San Francisco for a live KGO broadcast. For that we had to file a NOTAM, Notice to Airmen, to let them know we’d be flying in that area on that day, during those hours, so that anyone else flying in the same area, day and time could look and see who else would be there. When you’re a legal entity and you’re flying them legally, that’s one thing you have to do. So, if we wanted to fly in the area of a wildfire, we’d have to file NOTAM to let them know we’re going to be there.

That process seems counterintuitive for breaking news, which can't be predicted in advance.

This process, while it takes time now, will be streamlined, and the FAA will be looking for ways we can do this on a safe and quick basis, for newsgathering and other legitimate purposes.

How close is that to happening?

The FAA has a line, and we use it around here often: We want to crawl, walk, run. They want to be careful with it, make sure it’s done right. The process is slow and cumbersome, but it’s the process. We’re not going to argue with it. And recently the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee asked the FAA to direct the six UAS test sites, of which Nevada is one, and broadcast media to work together on pilot projects that will help develop policies and procedures for covering breaking news and other special events. So we’re going to be working with our local FAA site on that.

Does a drone's being legal prevent it from being a menace?

As the skies get more crowded, two things will be needed: 1. a transmitter that tells everybody where you are; and 2. sense-and-avoid technology (a sensor that detects when you’re going to hit something and stops). The challenge is to make something that’s small enough to fit on a drone, but still effective. For now, we’re not required to communicate with aircraft outside of where we’re at, but we’re flying at 200 feet or lower at this point, and we’re not within five miles of an airport, so we’re not interfering with other aircraft. They’re erring on the side of extreme safety.

Would it be legal to buy those illegally captured photos?

The short answer is yes. Two months ago, the FAA issued a memo saying they would not pursue media outlets that used photos from drones. They’re not pursuing anybody right now, because they don’t have the manpower. They’ve only sued one guy and ended up settling out of court with him. So, now, the other question — and I’m not a legal expert, so I can’t answer it — is whether media outlets are taking a risk (of some other legal action) in using video and photos from drones when something happens.

Seems like FAA approval would solve that problem.

Incidents like the one at Cajon Pass certainly don’t help the situation, when people are flying them rogue. It doesn’t help legitimate operators like us. We would have loved to be there. It would have been great for us to fly that, but it was impossible because we want to follow proper procedure.

How would you do it safely?

You might not be able to fly at all because of a TFR, but if you are, they’re going to give you an area to go into and say, “Here’s where you can go, here’s the level you can fly at. Stay there.” We have live capabilities, so we can transmit to a truck that can send it anywhere. The other thing we have is a lens that allows us to zoom and pan, so we can be 500 yards away from the situation and still get dynamic shots. That’s the technology that’s going to be used in the future for TV. And it’s safer in a police or fire situation.

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