New York Times, AP to Start Testing Drones for Reporting

More Cameras in the Sky

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A hovering drone.
A hovering drone. Credit: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

A group of 10 U.S. media companies, including the New York Times Co., the Associated Press and NBC Universal, will test the use of drones for news gathering, seeking to persuade the government to broaden the commercial use of the small unmanned aircraft.

The news organizations will join Virginia Tech University to study the use of drones at one of six test areas approved by Congress, according to a statement today.

The media companies are trying to gain U.S. approval for the use of drones to cover breaking news events that would otherwise be too expensive or dangerous to capture in person. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the commercial use of the small aircraft, though it has made some exceptions.

"The AP is excited to join with these other leading media companies in exploring the safe and responsible use of drone technology for news gathering purposes that further our understanding of current events," Santiago Lyon, the news wire's director of photography, said in the statement.

Other media companies that will participate in the drone testing are Advance Publications, A.H. Belo, Gannett, Getty Images, E.W. Scripps, Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Washington Post.

CNN said on Jan. 12 that it will also begin testing the use of drones for news gathering in partnership with Georgia Tech Research Institute.

Articles written by algorithm
The widespread interest in unmanned aircraft is another example of how news organizations are embracing technology for reporting at a time when many are reducing staff members to cut costs. Last year, the Los Angeles Times published a story about an earthquake that had been written by a computer algorithm.

The FAA is working to establish rules to regulate the commercial use of drones that have become increasingly popular with civilians, and the agency has made some exceptions to its ban. Some film companies have been given permission to use drones and they have been approved to inspect oilfield equipment, map farmland and photograph homes for real estate marketing.

The FAA, however, typically requires drone operators to notify the agency three days in advance. News organizations say giving such notice would be impossible because breaking news is unpredictable.

Drones over Chernobyl
Drones offer several potential benefits for newsrooms. Unmanned helicopters and fixed-wing planes can be bought at hobby shops and online for less than $1,000. By comparison, it costs news outlets about $1,500 per hour to rent a helicopter and owning one can cost "hundreds of thousands" of dollars each year for pilots, fuel, maintenance and other expenses, said Matt Waite, a journalism professor at University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Drones also would enable news organizations to film in locations where few journalists would be willing to go. Last fall, CBS's "60 Minutes" used a drone to capture aerial footage of the villages around Chernobyl, which has been largely abandoned after a nuclear plant explosion in 1986.

The use of drones for journalism also raises potential safety and privacy issues, especially near densely packed crowds where news and sporting events often take place. In 2013, a drone crashed into a grandstand at Virginia Motorsports Park, causing minor injuries to several spectators during an event.

~ Bloomberg News ~

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