New regulations for the use of unmanned drones are expected to come into effect in the first half of this year, which will make it easier for journalists and editors to use drones for newsgathering.
The drafting of revisions to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s CASR Part 101 regulations, which govern the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, began last year.
The proposals are expected to come into effect before June and would clear the way for operators to use drones that weigh less than two kilograms.
Currently, any organisation that wants to operate drones for a commercial purpose – which would include publishers using them for news coverage – must have certification from CASA.
However, strict rules governing the flight operation of these lighter UVAs would still apply.
Over the past few years, as drone technology has begun to be used as a story-telling mechanism by journalists, safety and privacy concerns led to a cautious approach by media organisations and drone providers.
Fairfax Media regularly uses two DJI Phantom 1 drones that it owns, to shoot videos and photography for its car-focused Drive brand.
However Simon Morris, the video news editor for The Sydney Morning Herald, said that the publisher’s drones are not really used for newsgathering purposes at this stage.
“It can be a useful contribution in some circumstances to a news story, it can give you access to places that you might not be able to go – like recent footage from Chernobyl or Donetsk airport – but in itself it doesn’t always tell you the story,” he said.
While media organisations will not have to be certified under the changes for UVAs less than two kilos, there are a number of restrictions on the way drones can be used.
Operators must keep the drone within a visual line of sight, below 400 feet, only in non-populous areas, more than 30 metres from people, and use it only during the day, outside controlled airspace and more than five kilometres from an airport.
Professor Matt Waite, founder of the University of Nebraska- Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab, says that as the technology develops, the reporting opportunities offered by UVAs would become unique and potentially game-changing.
“In the near term the main benefit is financial, that you can get professional grade cameras into the air to report news events for a few thousand dollars, and at a much cheaper rate than commercial helicopters,” he said.
“But where I think the real frontier of drone use is, is for investigative and data journalism.
“It’s using them to map things from the air, to monitor pollution, growth and development, to look for patterns in how our societies are changing on micro and macro levels. You can use drones to map disasters, so if a hurricane or tsunami comes through an area, with a UAV and GPS you can chronicle that event in a way that we haven’t been able to before.”
One problem could be in the area of breaking news. Ryan Hamlet, the only Australian board member of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, said it remains difficult to “spontaneously deploy” drones for snap coverage.
“Most of our jobs are planned out ahead of time, and obviously you can’t plan out the news ahead of time,” he said.
However, he believes, drones could eventually replace helicopters as the default way to get footage from the air.
“I think the cost benefit ratio will force them into the market, as compared to helicopters. They are cheap and reliable and, as they’re not ferrying passengers around, are seen as less risky in a way,” Mr Hamlet said.
Former Australian journalist Anthony Hoy now runs now runs VidiAir, a company that specialises in aerial video and photography shot from drones. Mr Hoy said UAVs had great potential as a tool for journalism.
“When I worked for The Australian I pretty much had carte blanche for the hiring of aircraft for aerial imagery of things like Wolfe Creek meteorite crater in the Kimberley, Haley’s Comet, just extraordinary outback imagery,” Mr Hoy said.
“Drones now give you the capability to capture that imagery yourself, without hiring Bell Jet Rangers at $2500 an hour or fixed-wing aircraft with the doors off.”
VidiAir will soon be an official drone training company.
Mr Hoy believes that media organisations will eventually adopt drones heavier than two kilograms anyway, which will still require CASA certification.