Sunday, December 13, 2015

News drones risks and rewards

News organizations – particularly newspapers – are eager to embrace drones as a relatively cost-effective alternative to helicopter aerial coverage. But for all of their advantages, Mary Collins weighs the known and unknown risks in using them, including the high insurance costs, not to mention the regulation uncertainties that have yet to fully coalesce.  

Over the weekend I read that actors in the latest Star Wars movie had to completely cover themselves with cloaks before walking to their trailers. When Mark Hamill asked why, the one word answer was, "Drones."

If your organization isn't already using a drone, chances are it's on your wish list for 2016. According to a study conducted by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), 15% of respondents said they are already using drones, and more than 70% of those surveyed agreed that drones would be a useful journalistic tool.

But while news organizations can see the potential of using drones for newsgathering, both known and unknown factors would significantly diminish that value.

Leveling the Video News Field

Significantly, newspaper journalists outnumbered all other categories of NPPA survey participants and cited the use of drones as a cost-effective means of competing with TV news helicopters. As one survey respondent explained, the cost of using a helicopter can range from $400 to $1,800 per hour compared to $23.00 per hour for a drone.

To make drones even more affordable, 77% of respondents said they would consider using them under a pooling arrangement. This approach would also shift responsibility for meeting FAA rules governing commercial use of drones to a third party.

Weighing Known Costs

While the expense of leasing and operating a drone is considerably cheaper than a helicopter, costly requirements on the use of drones would seem to be taken from the helicopter rules handbook. They include such restrictions as registering the UAV with the FAA and obtaining an exemption approving its use. In addition, the drone must be operated by an FAA-authorized pilot; a second person is needed for maintaining visual contact.

Under current rules, authorized drones cannot fly more than 200 feet above the ground and are limited to daylight hours. In addition, drones can't fly over crowds, specific densely populated areas or near airports and other restricted airspace. Perhaps someone should have mentioned that to the young man whose drone was tying up Friday morning traffic on Sunset Blvd. when I was heading to LAX a couple of weeks ago.

The High Cost of Insuring Against Risks

Liability insurance cost will be another variable in the drone equation. In an article prepared for MFM's TFM –The Financial Manager magazine, Joe Lewis, corporate fleet and risk manager for Raycom Media, summarizes five main risks identified by insurers Lloyd's of London and Marsh:

1. Invasion of privacy – Your company's professional media liability policy will need to include this type of exposure.

2. Reckless piloting/operation – Lewis recommends addressing this concern by having a formal training and accreditation program.

3. Fuzzy, inconsistent regulations – "As long as there is regulatory indecision, insurance companies are likely to charge steep premiums for coverage."

4. Cyber-attack exposure – "If a car's operating system can be hacked, it's likely that the same thing can happen to a drone."

5. Airspace control – With more than a million mini-drones already occupying airspace, there's a high likelihood that an air-traffic monitoring system will be created.

In addition to examining their own liability policies, Lewis says media organizations that hire the services of drone providers will need to ensure the provider has insurance policies in place for addressing these risks.

The Importance of Trust

When it comes to public concerns and drones, the two top issues are safety and privacy. Lewis encourages media organizations to demonstrate their commitment to responsible use of drones through adopting a high standard of conduct. Two excellent resources to get you started are the ethical codes established by NPPA and The Professional Society of Drone Journalists.

The Looming Burden of Unknowns

Current and potential laws limiting the use of drones represent the greatest area of concern for media organizations. Significant among these is the outcome of a proposed rule-making currently under consideration by the FAA.

Some parts of the new rules may benefit media organizations. As reported in NetNewsCheck, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) expressed support for the agency's proposed creation of a new, less-regulated classification for small drones.

Another positive outcome would be the chance for federal legislation to replace the patchwork of rules emanating from state legislatures. According to the NPPA, as many as 44 states have either passed or are currently considering rules affecting the media's use of drones.

However, NPPA and other media organizations participating in the News Media Coalition voiced their concerned over a new rule proposed by the FAA. If enacted, the provision would require media organizations to furnish a copy of their drone registrations to law enforcement officials whenever requested.

As Raycom's Lewis observed, "It's important for media operations to not only know the limitations of how they can use drones today, but how those limitations might change tomorrow." You can learn more about those limitation's in Lewis's article, "Up in the Air," which appears in the November-December edition of TFM; it's also available digitally on MFM's website for several more weeks.

Technology is clearly changing the way news is reported. While the use of drones may be limited, they have the potential to pay off when managed properly.

By Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of MFM, the Media Financial Management Association and can be reached at

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