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Q&A: Sinclair Drone Chief Jeff Rose

BALTIMORE and WASHINGTON—Sinclair was flight ready when rules for commercial use of unmanned aerial systems went into effect in late August. It had drone news teams in six of its 81 markets within weeks of the long-awaited Federal Aviation Administration directive, when the company laid out its plan to have 80 trained, FAA-certified UAS pilots in 40 markets by the end of next year, including Ed Beran (l) and Dre Dabars (r) of KTUL ABC8 in Tulsa, Okla., pictured here.

The deployment was revealed on Capitol Hill Sept. 27 at a science and technology fair, where Sinclair shared its concept for drone-based newsgathering with lawmakers and regulators, using footage of the rising river in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, (screenshot below) from two days before. In addition to Beran and Dabars and the Cedar Rapids team comprising Brian Emfinger and Barry Deer, Sinclair had teams in Green Bay, Wis.; Columbus, Ohio; Little Rock, Ark.; Washington, D.C. and its home turf, Baltimore. (WRGB, CBS 6 in Albany, N.Y. has since launched a drone news team.)

Sinclair already had launched a public service campaign—“Know Before You Fly”—emphasizing safety and letting people in 81 of their markets know that these things are coming. Drones have been an object of controversy because of both careless use and privacy concerns, which the FAA had to consider when crafting the rules, and which Sinclair will have to navigate.

TV Technology queried Sinclair’s chief drone pilot, Jeff Rose, about the broadcaster’s drone strategy as well as its approach to privacy. He is joined here by Rebecca Hanson, Sinclair’s senior vice president of strategy and policy.

TVT:How is this much video going to be incorporated into the news workflow on both the individual and connected station level?
Rose: There’s no set mandate on incorporation. Once our photographers are trained it is up to their newsroom to decide when to utilize drone footage to enhance their newscasts. In many cases, drone footage will be used to supplement stories by giving an overview of the scene.
On a multi-station level, whenever there is a major news event such as a flood, that footage can be offered to all of our stations and carried live. One of the benefits of our network of stations has been our ability to send trained drone teams to stations who are not yet equipped. This enables us to bring this technology to our markets nationwide, even as our program grows.

TVT: What kind of camera and resolution?
Rose: We operate with a Zenmuse X5 with a micro four-thirds sensor 1920/1080, with interchangeable lens capability and optical zoom lenses.

TVT:Are you shooting in 4K 60p with the Zenmuse?
Rose: Sometimes we shoot in 4K for productions shoots such as a news promotions. Normally, we shoot in 1920x1080 for live streaming. We also record video onboard the aircraft for downloading post-flight.

TVT: Will the signal be IP-based?
Rose: We currently use the cellphone network for transmission back to the station for incorporation into our newscast.

TVT: Is Sinclair using any specific cell-bonding technology?

Rose: We use common newsgathering cellphone equipment called LiveU. It simply connects by HDMI to the video output from the aircraft. It uses multiple cellphone paths simultaneously and combines them back at the station for broadcast. This is all done automatically.

TVT:Is Sinclair flying DJI’s exclusively, or some other type of drones as well?
Rose: At this time Sinclair is flying DJI Inspire 1 Pro aircraft only. (Pictured right.)

TVT:What type of privacy rules and parameters will Sinclair impose and abide by?
Rebecca Hanson: Sinclair participated in and supports the “Voluntary Best Practices for UAS Privacy,” published by NTIA, and all of our pilots follow these best practices as part of their training. Since we are training veteran local journalists from our stations, they also bring years of experience with, and understanding of, the privacy law regimes that govern traditional photography.

TVT:Will Sinclair’s drones have easily visible station ID branding as news choppers typically do?
Rose: The branding on our drones is too small to be easily visible while operating. However, our drone pilots operate their aircraft within the line-of-sight and are easily identifiable by the bright safety vests they wear.

TVT: How will breaking news flights be coordinated in markets where manned rotor aircraft are still being used to cover such events?
Rose: It is part of our policy for pilots to remain clear of and yield the right of way to manned aviation operations and activities. We also monitor helicopter radio frequencies for flight information.

TVT:Will this drone fleet also be employed in the inspection of what must be Sinclair’s extensive network of towers?
Rose: The only purpose of this fleet is training our local journalists to use this technology for newsgathering.

TVT:How will the Sinclair team maneuver the drones in the D.C. area around such strict regulations?
Rose: As part of their training, our pilots learn how to navigate flight restrictions and assess them prior to every flight. Our UAS Program is already operating in the D.C. Metro area and covering news events while following FAA guidelines concerning restricted airspace.

TVT:How will Sinclair proceed if someone shoots one down one of their news drones?
Rose: We hope that would never happen. So far our viewers understand and value the benefit of responsible drone use for news. As long as we are respecting current privacy rules, no one should feel the need to shoot down one of our drones. That would be the equivalent of grabbing and smashing one of our cameras, which to my knowledge has never happened. If it does, we won’t be happy.

TVT:Does Sinclair have any waivers filed with the FAA, e.g., a waiver to fly over people, such as CNN has? Or is Sinclair waiting for the FAA’s own rules on that, expected this winter?
Rose: Sinclair is studying the pathway toward a successful waiver for flights over people. We do not want to wait for the FAA’s proposal for flights over people.

TVT:Are there any other waivers in progress?
Rose: Sinclair has not applied for a waiver for flights over people at this time.

TVT:Does the team have any drone footage available online we can share?
Rose: We have sample footage of SBG UAS news video here: