Guest Post by Travis Fox, Director of Visual Journalism
Last Friday I co-hosted the 2nd annual Drone Journalism Leadership Summit at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association, put together a definitive collection of decision-makers within the drone journalism community.
We hosted the leaders of drone units from CNN, the USA TODAY NETWORK, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, McClatchy and The Washington Post, among many others. Collectively they manage a few hundred active drone journalists daily.
Additionally, we heard from drone journalism educators from across the country, industry leaders, lawyers and law enforcement officers. Our keynote speaker was Joseph F. Morra from the FAA’s UAS Integration Office who also answered questions from the group. In the interest of candor, those sessions were held off-the-record.
As a drone pilot, educator and journalist, I wanted to highlight several takeaways from the day.
sUAS RAMP CHECKS
The biggest surprise for me and several others in the room came from Jeff Rose, the UAS chief pilot from Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of local TV stations in the U.S. Rose used a term from his past in fixed-wing aviation — ramp checks — to describe a new practice by the FAA to spot check his Part 107 pilots in the field. On several occasions in the last year, Rose said FAA officials from local FSDOs showed up in the field after Sinclair pilots filed LAANC airspace authorizations. The checklist to the right is courtesy of Jeff Rose.
FAA FSDO Surveillance Inspection
1. Type of Pilot Certificate- Part 107. Show certificate number.
2. Driver’s License- in lieu of medical certificate.
3. Insurance Verification Form.
4. Aircraft Registration.
5. FAA Part 107 Rules Summary.
6. Flight Operations Manual.
7. Communications Sheet- phone numbers and frequencies of local authorities.
8. Maintenance log-
• How often/ when do you change rotor blades? Is this noted?
• Battery abnormalities- logged?
• Preflight Inspection- written log or have printed preflight Inspection checklist on hand.
9. Knowledge of aircraft weight- Inspire with camera is 8.5 lbs.
10. LAANC Authorization Confirmation Number (if applicable).
11. Proximity/ distance and direction of nearby airports.
12. Knowledge of TFRs/ are there any active? Or confirm that you called Flight Services.
The officials verified the pilots’ Part 107 certification cards, but also quizzed them about their flight logs and even sought records such as how often they changed their rotor blades. Keeping such records aren’t specifically laid out in the Part 107 requirements, but are considered a best practice.
Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska and a pioneer of drone journalism, had a similar experience, but he said the officials left after checking his card to chase down an unknown drone that flew nearby. Waite was documenting the implosion of a building.
“Ramp checks” came as a surprise because I believe most drone journalists would have a hard time easily producing all the records that the FAA requested from Rose’s pilots, myself included. These pilots regularly respect Part 107 rules and certainly fly safely, but simply don’t go that extra mile. It’s clear we need to start.
Rose said the Sinclair pilots were prepared with all this information and the experience strengthened their relationship with the FSDO. Later, when the FSDO received a complaint about a Sinclair flight, the FAA officials pushed back and defended the journalists.
Communicating and building relationships was a common theme throughout the day, with the public, with the FAA and with local law enforcement.
CNN AIR’s Greg Agvent summed it up with his mantra, “You can’t over-communicate.”
Agvent described a project that was part of CNN’s participation in the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program. CNN pilots were using their flight-over-people waiver to cover a football tailgate party in North Dakota. But instead of simply flying and capturing the footage, CNN made the effort to walk around to inform tailgaters and solicit the public’s reaction.
We discussed what other broadcasters and publications do to engage their audience about responsible drone news coverage. It was clear that journalists could do more to educate their viewers, based on research by Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics.
Although our journalism institutions should be doing more, it’s a more difficult ask of freelancers and independent drone journalists. I find it hard enough to find the time to research local laws when I travel to fly, much less reach out to local authorities, the FSDO and the nearby public. It seems clear we need to do more than simply wear a high-vis vests.
FLIGHT OVER PRIVATE PROPERTY
One of the most spirited debates of the day was a discussion of overflight of private property. The ULC draft tort law of course came up, but what was more interesting was the ethical consideration when to fly over private property and when not to.
Journalism ethics always balances rights of privacy with the public’s right to know what’s happening in their communities. In news situations such as covering the recent hurricanes, it’s clear that drone journalists are more comfortable flying over private property. I was surprised, however, how much resistance there was to overflight — even at higher altitudes — in situations when news isn’t happening.
Judd Slivka, who teaches drone journalism at the University of Missouri, said pilots should avoid flying over private property in non-news situations such as for feature stories. He suggested traversing clearly public areas such as roads or first seeking permission from property owners.
Andrew Scott, the director of operations for UAS systems for the USA TODAY NETWORK, recalled the debate within his office about whether to overfly the home of a person who was being investigated by the paper. Buildings on the property were relevant to the reporting, but were completely out of sight from any angle at street level. In the end, Scott opted not to fly but instead used an image from Google Earth to show the size of the entire compound.
I often find drone pilots on the various Facebook groups are overly aggressive about flying over private property even at low altitudes. They see that the law is on their side — which they’re mostly correct about — and dismiss any ethical considerations.
As a journalist, I consider the ethical balance and weigh the importance of my flight with the potential of disturbance or the perception of privacy violations. Even after these considerations I felt that I am probably a lot more willing to fly over private property or do so at a higher altitude to minimize potential backlash than my colleagues. That came as a surprise.
The only conclusion we came to is that none of these issues are resolved — legally, ethically, or otherwise — but hearing from everyone and comparing notes and best practices will help us improve the perception that drones have within our communities and allow us to more effectively tell stories with the technology.
Travis Fox is the Director of Visual Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and a Part 107 pilot. He is working on several aerial photography projects.
This is his first guest post for DroneBusiness.center