In 2010, an IT employee at CNN went to the mall and bought his son a Parrot AR.Drone as a Christmas present.
That drone, a piece of equipment that’s more toy than tool, would become the first drone to air footage for a major national news network.
The pilot? Aaron Brodie, a producer with CNN.com at the time, and now a freelance photojournalist and founder of Extreme Journalist, a multimedia storytelling startup
At the time, Brodie didn’t think much of the drone during his conversation with the IT guy. He was too inundated with other work to think about it.
But then the Tuscaloosa tornado happened.
A massive tornado cut a 5.9-mile path of destruction, damaging more than 5,700 structures. As the weather geek in the newsroom (every newsroom has one), Brodie was sent to cover the disaster for a few days.
A few days later, Brodie’s boss sent him back. This time, he was armed with the drone that belonged to their coworker’s son.
“It was a challenge to fly at first, and I didn’t read the instruction manual,” he said. “I started flying it around the newsroom and scared everybody to death flying it inside. I went back to Tuscaloosa and learned to fly in a park there.
Since that model of the Parrot didn’t allow video recording, Brodie “borrowed” (without asking) a GoPro from another department, hurried to Target to buy double-faced tape, stripped the drone down and took the foam protector off so it could carry the weight of the GoPro.
“I went into the damage zone and started taking shots,” he said. “It worked ok. It struggled to lift a GoPro, and even the slightest breeze would send it off course. You couldn’t fight the winds. In a tornado zone, it looks like World War III, and I had to be careful.”
His video aired on CNN, there was a blog post online about it, and then it was back the daily grind of news reporting.
But the tornado footage was the only time his work appeared on national television.
What stopped him?
“I just got so discouraged by the rules and legal issues,” he said. “In 2011, (the law regarding commercial drone use) wasn’t clear yet. Nobody could definitely say you’re not supposed to do this. The drone has just been packed away and waiting for the day.”
That day is coming sometime by 2015, after Congress passed legislation calling on the FAA to write rules governing the commercial operation of drones. Brodie was advised against airing further footage shot from a drone to avoid legal trouble.
Brodie says RC aircraft has been around for decades with little notice.
“FAA wasn’t raising a fuss until Congress directed them to make language requiring them to make it ok to fly and gather aerial footage,” he said. “That clarified that currently it is not ok.”
Brodie says he would like to see some degree of regulation.
“It doesn’t need to have a lot of heavy handed government rules, but there need to be basic rules and expectations,” he said. “You shouldn’t be flying unless you have liability insurance. We don’t get to drive cars without licensing or insurance. It should be the same thing.”
Requiring an aircraft pilot’s license, he says, would be excessive.
“A drone is not going to destroy a house or car,” he said. “Maybe a crowd of people get bruises, but it’s not the same as an airplane crashing into people. That’s putting a barrier so high that would crash the industry before it has started.”
Since then, Brodie has put together kit drones and even built his own aluminum drone with a GPS attached, built specifically to fly into tornadoes so storm chasers could take pressure readings. He calls it the Swarm Drone. He flew along the coast in New Jersey before and after Hurricane Irene, and has caught Texas wildfires on camera with the drone, none of which has aired with a news outlet.
Brodie says he sees potential for future drone use in newsrooms – especially blogs and newspapers that don’t have the funding for helicopters like major news networks.
“I think the benefit comes from being able to send a drone into areas that are too dangerous to send a person,” he said. “I once sent a drone into a house that had been completely burned out from the Texas wildfires. I talked to the owners and we flew it through an open door. There’s that birds-eye perspective of how big is a crowd at a protest. Flying over tornado damage or natural disaster is one of the best examples of needing a drone.”
But there are downsides too.
“If you’re flying over the protest, you’re violating a safety rule. Every potential has a pitfall. You just have to work around them.”
A combination of unclear FAA laws, the fact that most journalists can’t lobby and tricky technology is what’s stopping drones from being used in the newsrooms now.
“Now is the time for journalists to learn about it so they can make sure they have a voice with the FAA before 2015,” he said. “Your newsroom probably won’t pay for it because you can’t pay for it with commercial purposes. So journalists have to learn on their own. If we don’t learn about it, then we can’t have much of a voice with the FAA.”