The coming age of unmanned aerial newsgathering

March 16, 2015 01:30

By Norman Stein
Newsroom computer systems have linked geographically disbursed reporters and newsrooms within the US and internationally around the globe to facilitate collaborative reporting, audio, video, and graphic arts production, and the editorial journalistic process. Will the business change yet again, with “no boots on the ground and no boots in the air?” Will developing Unmanned Aerial News Gathering (UANG) systems facilitate timely and accurate news reporting for breaking news events (situational awareness), feature reports, and investigative reporting? Are aerial views (stills and video) beneficial to the visual elements of journalistic storytelling? Are your staffs (editorial and technical) adequately prepared and educated to embrace this coming technology and process?
Over the course of the last 65 years, broadcasters have seen a myriad of journalistic and technology process changes to enable timely news story delivery, compelling content, and customer driven focus. From the early days of news content on radio and black and white television sets, both the process and delivery have evolved. We have seen the audio portions of content transition from mono to stereo and black and white images transition to color, HD, and 4K. The transition from film to Electronic News Gathering (ENG) revolutionized the news business and further enabled transitions from analog to digital technologies and computer and networked systems. Content delivery also evolved from Terrestrial Over-the-Air Broadcast to Cable, Satellite, and Streaming Interactive on-demand content delivery system options. The pace of change has not slowed.

The miniaturization of electronic field cameras has typically reduced field staffing and facilitated multi-tasking, i.e., camera operator / editor / reporter job functions. Cell phone technologies with cameras (still and video) combined with wireless networks have enabled the citizen journalist as a news resource. For many at the network, group, and station levels, news staffing has transitioned from full-time employees to a mixture of full-time and free-lance staffers. To date, one constant throughout all of this workflow change has been the reliance on people - behind the cameras, engaged in the production process, staffing the editing suites, and behind the anchor desks and in front of the camera lens. Will Unmanned Aerial News Gathering (UANG) impact this dynamic?

Historically, broadcasters have utilized unmanned robotic cameras in television studios and in sporting event arenas for many years. For field coverage, news organizations have traditionally employed manned helicopters and manned fixed wing aircraft to cover events, especially those events over a large geographic area or where ground access is limited. The use of UANG untethered camera platforms for news could expand a news organization’s ability to cover a larger geographic area and provide visual camera perspectives typically not available in the daily news production process.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently proposed unmanned UAV / UAS / Small Drone commercial flight rules and operational guidelines within the US for a limited number of commercial businesses at this writing. This developing change in the US aviation regulatory policy will impact news organizations desiring to employ aerial operational camera platform technologies. Implementation of UANG capabilities will have significant impact on news organizations requiring new employee skill sets for airborne camera platforms. As a result, there are a number of airborne operational and technology issues for media organizations to consider including:
  • Airborne / Aerial Operations (In House and / or Contracted)
  • Video & Motion Imagery Concept of Operations (Con-Ops)
  • Video & Motion Imagery Analysis & Interpretation (Do the pictures accurately tell the thousand words?)
  • Video & Motion Imagery Interoperability – Shared Resources – Pooled Resources
  • Video & Motion Imagery Quality (QC) / Test & Measurement
  • Video & Motion Imagery Transmission & Distribution
  • Video & Motion Imagery Metadata (Platform, Operator, Date, Time, Latitude, and Longitude)
  • Video & Motion Imagery Storage (Index, Storage, Retrieval, and Archive)
  • Video & Motion Imagery Employee Recruitment and Professional Development
  • Automated Systems relevant to the use of Video / Motion Imagery in operational settings
  • Video & Motion Imagery Display Systems
  • The Legal Aspects of Unmanned Aerial News Gathering (UANG) Systems
  • Training

For many of these timely commercial topics of interest to the industry, the textbooks are not written, the college curriculum is not yet in place, company policies are being discussed and developed, and the workforce experience is quite limited except for those that might have prior hobby, military, or government career experiences. But, the pace of change is upon the US journalistic community for Unmanned Aerial News Gathering (UANG). Even though there might not be “boots on the ground nor boots in the air,“ one size boot will not fit all, and there is need for industry discussion and dialogue on these timely topics.
Norman Stein ( is a Senior Systems Engineer with InTec, LLC of Fairfax, Va.  His broadcast experience includes Director of Operations with Sinclair Broadcast Group and cameraman, video editor, engineering, and supervisory positions with CBS, NBC – WRC, and ABC news bureaus based in Washington, DC.