SAN LEANDRO, CALIF.—CNN will be allowed to fly newsgathering drones over people after receiving a Part 107 waiver for operations above humans from the Federal Aviation Administration, the news network announced Wednesday, Oct. 18.
That’s significant because until now news organizations and other commercial operators flying unmanned aircraft systems were not permitted to operate over people, and people most often are the subject of news.
Tobin Fisher with a Snap drone
CNN can’t use just any drone, however. The waiver authorizes the network to fly the Snap UAS from San Leandro, Calif., -based Vantage Robotics. The 1.37-pound drone, which includes a 4K camera, gimbal and wireless video and control link in that total weight, was specifically created to capture aerial footage near people with safety as a priority, says company CEO Tobin Fisher.
The waiver allows CNN to fly a version of Snap –one equipped with specific rotors– no higher than 150 feet over people to gather news.
In this interview, the Vantage Robotics CEO discusses the specifics of the Snap drone, the safety testing it underwent before the FAA gave its approval, working with the aviation administration on the waiver process and the implications of CNN receiving the waiver for the TV industry at large.
TV TECHNOLOGY: CNN just received an FAA waiver to allow it to fly your company’s drone over people –a first. What is it about your Snap drone that lends itself to safe operation over people?
TOBIN FISHER: Achieving safe operation is a combination of things. What we have done as part of this process with CNN is to study every possible way the drone can injure someone.
We’ve looked at all of the literature. We have established thresholds in partnership with the FAA. Then we’ve tested.
Snap has very high-performance rotor guards to prevent lacerations. It is also designed to both break apart on impact and deform to absorb energy. This minimizes the impact energies and reduces the risks of concussions and contusions and neck injuries. It also has a very soft exterior. So there is nothing on impact that will create lacerations.
Lastly, Snap was designed to auto-rotate during any unpowered descent which limits the maximum speed when falling and assures a consistent orientation when falling.
TVT: Do the four rotor blades auto-rotate or does the whole drone?
TF: The four blades auto rotate similar to a helicopter rotor auto rotates in an emergency situation.
TVT: Have you ever done a controlled crash of Snap from 150 feet on top of someone to see what will happen in the real world?
TF: What we have done is a number of real crashes onto simulated targets in order to evaluate peak forces, peak pressures, specific impact energy and absolute impact energy.
Most were done using EPS [expanded polystyrene] foam as a target, and we saw that at terminal velocity Snap leaves a smaller imprint on EPS foam than you can leave by just pressing your thumb onto it.
TVT: The Snap drone weighs 1.37 pounds, correct?
TF: Correct. To our knowledge, Snap is the lightest weight 4K gimbal-stabilized flying camera in the world.
TVT: Are you able to include a wireless link in that package, or is video stored to an SD card and retrieved after the drone lands?
TF: It does both.
TVT: What does the camera and wireless assembly weigh?
TF: We designed the camera from the ground up to be integrated into Snap. The whole assembly, including the camera, gimbal and wireless link, is 50 grams.
TVT: Is the wireless connection Wi-Fi or a more traditional broadcast microwave transmitter?
TF: We have an internal Wi-Fi link, and the system has an expansion port for an auxiliary communications link that can include a higher-quality, dedicated link for high definition streaming.
TVT: What is the maximum flight time of the Snap drone?
TF: So the drone has a very interesting architecture that is modular. That enables alternative rotor sets to be used. The rotor set for which we got the waiver has a flight time of 20 minutes.
We have alternative rotor sets that will do 37 minutes and an hour, respectively, that are still safe to get near people.
TVT: What is the range of Snap in distance?
TF: This drone is specifically designed for use near people. So it is not designed for long-range operation. It has the ability with a repeater to be used up to 1km away, but the effective range is 150m.
TVT: Are there any features that assist the pilot in avoiding collisions with objects? With a 150-foot ceiling, I could foresee indoor use at a political convention and am thinking of avoiding things like video display boards suspended from the ceiling.
TF: Yes. We have a fairly sophisticated sonar system that does ground avoidance. The software system also has a number of techniques for both geo-fencing as well as limiting speeds and altitudes to keep everything within safe limits.
TVT: What do you think CNN receiving the waiver to fly over people more broadly portends for drones in newsgathering applications?
TF: I think it is a massive step forward for journalism. To date, it has not been legal for journalists to use drones anywhere near people. So this entire perspective was missing for the most interesting subject, namely people.
This is the first time that a news outlet can actually capture the aerial perspective of people both legally and safely.
TVT: Is the Snap drone CNN has been authorized to use in this application different from the version commercially available to the public?
TF: It is the same drone that we offer for sale on our website. There is no difference.
TVT: Will the granting of this waiver ultimately make it easier for other news organizations to deploy drones above people?
TF: Absolutely. CNN right now is paving new ground for journalism. This process we went through with the FAA was really a learning process for everyone involved in terms of defining the process one uses to establish that the drone is safe as well as the technology to achieve that.
We expect this will be the first step in paving the way for drones to be used more broadly in journalism.