CNN AIR: Q&A With Greg Agvent

ATLANTA—CNN recently unveiled an operational unit dedicated to drone-based newsgathering. “CNN AIR,” as it’s called, will provide aerial footage to all the various CNN, Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting platforms.

CNN started preparing to use drones for newsgathering long before the Federal Aviation Administration issued its rules for the commercial use of small drones in June.

The cable news franchise partnered with Georgia Tech Research Institute in June of 2014 to study the use of unmanned aerial systems, aka “drones,” in newsgathering. By January of 2015, the FAA had cleared the operation and entered into a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with CNN and GTRI on testing the use of drones in newsgathering.

Along the way, CNN has used drone-captured footage to cover the flooding in Louisiana, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., the Republican and Democratic national conventions and Anderson Cooper’s look back at Hurricane Katrina 10 years after.

Now, CNN AIR will continue the momentum. The unit will be led by Greg Agvent, CNN’s senior director of National Newsgathering Technology. Mr. Agvent gamely agreed to answer a few questions from the TV Technology crew.

TV Technology:What is your first order of business?
Greg Agvent: I want to make it clear—the recent announcement was a culmination of almost two full years of research, planning, testing and preparation. We are well beyond our first order of business. We are open for business.

TV Technology:Why did CNN create a separate unit for drone-based newsgathering?
Agvent: It just made sense to develop the expertise and provide the service across CNN and all the Time Warner entities. We will still engage with trusted vendors who meet our standards for safety and for journalistic integrity. CNN has, throughout its history, been a leader in adopting technology. This is another example of that leadership and of our commitment to aerial imagery.

TV Technology:CNN has been active in incorporating drone-captured video into its coverage. Is this just about the addition of aerial footage, or are there other types of uses we have yet to see?
Agvent: We are all just scratching the surface of what’s possible. Certainly for the business we’re in, video is a driver, and a natural starting point. We are operating in essentially in three video “buckets:”
Production value;
Enhanced storytelling;
Context and understanding;
…but different sensors will create different data and add context beyond just the picture.

TV Technology: What workflow complications does drone integration present?
Agvent: Several—but none that can’t be overcome. Among our first hurdles is adopting a 4K workflow to our existing workflows. CNN’s house standard is 1080i, we convert all that drone footage to house format for immediate use. Next hurdle: storing the native 4K format.

TV Technology: Will you be hiring professional drone operators/pilots?
Agvent: We have. We hired two professional pilots as our UAS operators. Additionally, we are building our network of “trusted vendors”—drone operators who meet our own high standards for safety, integrity, capability.

TV Technology: How do you plan on coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration?
Agvent: We have been coordinating with the FAA since May of 2015. We work with both Washington D.C. headquarters and with the local FAA representatives in ATC [air traffic control] towers and flight safety directors’ offices across the country. I’m a firm believer in over-communicating.

TV Technology: How do the FAA UAS rules impact your operational decisions?
Agvent: A great deal of time and energy went into working with the FAA on our concept of operations, our own operations manuals and on an operational risk assessment tool that will guide if or how we operate in any specific circumstance. Commercial users need to realize—you are playing on the FAA’s turf, there is a serious potential downside to reckless or thoughtless operations. Fly safely and responsibly.

TV Technology: AVs were utilized at the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions, CNN presidential primary debates and town halls. How do you anticipate drones will be used on election day?
Agvent: That’s a great question….

TV Technology: Will CNN use drones to cover conflicts in war zones? If so, do you expect to be able to do live coverage?
Agvent: If our use will provide context or understanding and can be executed safely, then I’m certain we will. The footage from Kobani, Syria in the aftermath of horrific bombing of the town is very powerful imagery. Regarding the question of “live,” we have live capabilities from our drones. We will use the capabilities when appropriate. Keep in mind that we have 35 years of experience in dealing with journalistic questions. We have very robust processes in place and smart people to deal with questions of ethics and privacy. Good journalism is in our DNA—a drone is just another newsgathering tool—one that we will not let effect our essential DNA.

TV Technology: Will you be using unlicensed or licensed RF spectrum?
Agvent: I anticipate both.

TV Technology: Will you encrypt the drone feeds?
Agvent: There will be situations where it’s in the best interest to “stream” aerial footage to provide real-time situational awareness, and there will be situations when the opposite is true. The situation will dictate.

TV Technology: What is the most difficult aspect of integrating drones into newsgathering?
Agvent: Under-promising. People see the outcomes—spectacular imagery—but don’t necessarily see the work that goes into the preparation and planning. The drone is a tool—it’s not the only tool, but it’s a shiny new tool and everyone wants to use them. In reality it might not be the right tool for the mission.

Also see…
Aug. 30, 2016

FAA Issues CNN Waiver to Fly Drones Over People
The regulations adopted on June 21, 2016 officially take effect today, Aug. 29.

Aug. 29, 2016
FAA Drone Rules Go Into Effect
The regulations adopted on June 21, 2016 officially take effect today, Aug. 29.

Aug. 18, 2016
CNN Creates Drone Unit
CNN was selected by the FAA as one of the first three industry “Pathfinders” to develop safe uses of UAS in newsgathering.

Aug. 3, 2016
FAA to Propose Drone Flight Over People Rule by Winter
Federal regulators will address drone flight over people in a proposal due out for comment this winter.