Hyping Drones – Enough Already

The shiny new object in news gathering is the drone. If you listen to the hype, it will replace reporters, camera crews and perhaps even sliced bread. It’s bunk.

But that won’t stop the entire exhibition hall at this year’s NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) annual shindig from being given over to the whizzing miniatures bristling with HD cameras and of course, plenty of cool blinky lights.drones_lead

I am not buying into the mania because while equipment sellers make their livings selling systems, tools, gadgets and toys – the real work of news gathering can’t be replaced by a drone.

Editorial judgement comes first, and the potential for abuse when it comes to drones is huge. Just because you can fly over something and just record it doesn’t mean you necessarily should. In fact, my argument here would be that employing drones will actually require higher-level, and thus more expensive, editorial control in the newsroom.

In other words while you might be willing to turn your newscast over to a 23 year old producer (videographer, MMJ or reporter) who doesn’t know who Henry Kissinger is (hopefully with your anchors backstopping them), are you really going to put a drone into their hands off-hours and trust them decide all of the privacy and ethical issues that might arise along with uncontrolled (as opposed to helicopters at least under ATC with licensed pilots) aerial news gathering?

On the flip side, as a photographer or staffer using the drone, are you naive enough to think that the station’s attorney will be representing you when the drone loses battery power and lands on somebody’s head?

The other piece involves storytelling. Aerials are often extremely useful in the context of telling a story. Aerials in-and-of-themselves however are not news and are generally not the story outside of breaking news. Beyond that, they are typically visually weak. When producers fall into the temptation to use them as “wallpaper” video – they clearly fall short in that they lack intimacy, soul and the elements of good news photography.

At best, aerials are in fact a high cost supplement to storytelling. What I’m saying is that they do very little to put a heart and soul into a story, to introduce us to interesting characters or stakeholders, surprise is with visual cues to narrative twists, or show the world in a way that helps us to explain and illuminate the “why” and “how” that really should drive storytelling.

And note, I say all this as a supporter of aviation in news gathering. I think aviation can make good, better. I think avation can show relationships and effects on a broad scale. It’s valuable for breaking news. But again, if forced to choose between spending money on aviation, or putting a couple talented storytellers into the field – I would choose the latter. On a smaller scale, if forced to choose between a drone and all the potential liabilities that go along with it, I would choose getting every crew its own set of gear, or adding an MMJ. I guess I would spend on a newsroom’s “blocking and tackling” needs before buying a toy of questionable value.

So what about using drones during breaking news? Talk about saving some money! Sounds great!

Well here’s the bad news: the first thing local authorities are going to do around a major breaking story is shut down the airspace – especially once drones get involved, and then to make matters worse, drones don’t have the ability to lift and operate the gear required for broadcast quality stand-off aerial news gathering when that airspace gets restricted vertically and/or laterally. Gyro-stabilization, good glass (lenses), and a device capable of encoding broadcast-standard video (i.e. NOT H264 .mpeg4) just aren’t possible on a drone. Neither are long loiter times.

You won’t hear any of that out of the drone-hype-machine at NAB though. It’s all about replacing helicopters and judgement, and saving money.

So while I think drones are very valuable right now for many types of non-editorial video production, and they may become a limited tool in news gathering eventually, I don’t think they’re going to live up to the hype when it comes to revolutionizing reporting, news gathering, aerial operations, the editorial process or storytelling.

Because of that, I seriously question whether the potential liabilities they pose are worth it – which these days, makes me a voice lost in the wilderness… probably waiting for a drone to fly over and pick up my emergency locator beacon.