How to Incorporate Drones into News Coverage During COVID-19

(Image credit: CNN)

While an increasing number of viewers are tuning into television for news about the coronavirus pandemic, the advertising dollars have not kept up. In fact, total local advertising in the United States is expected to decline by 30% in 2020, according to one estimate.

As the pandemic slows companies around the world, many media outlets are struggling to meet the demand for high-volume, high-quality content in the face of tight budgets. One way to reduce costs is to incorporate drones into your news coverage. During a time of decreased advertising revenue, drones can save your news organization money, generate additional revenue and ensure you obtain the diverse video footage needed to support high-quality programming.

Drones can help cover breaking news by capturing aerial footage. They can gather data of all types, including infrared scans, topographical maps and 3D models. They can reduce costs as compared to flying and maintaining helicopters. And they can serve as a new revenue source when rented out to other businesses. It’s no coincidence that media adoption of drone technology has grown over the years. Indeed, the media and entertainment market for drones is valued at $8.8 billion, according to a 2016 PwC report, and the market is poised for continued growth

During these unprecedented times, drones are widely seen as a valuable tool for media organizations. The question is: Where do you start?  As you consider adding drones to your news coverage, here are six tips for launching a successful program: 


During this time of social distancing, drones can prove useful by allowing crews to shoot video while remaining hundreds of feet away from their subject. Yet to prevent your program from stalling out, it’s important to identify where drones can create the most business value. Will you be using your drones for weather and traffic reporting? Gather news from above about unfolding disasters? Get live shots for sporting events? Improve your B-roll footage or ad production quality? And will you be renting out your drone services to other businesses, studios or stations? With so many options, it’s important to clarify your goals and the biggest ways drones can advance your business. 


Before agreeing to the program, top-level executives will want to know whether drones are worth the financial investment—and convincing them requires analyzing both the costs and savings. A helicopter outfitted with cameras and broadcast equipment costs as much as $850,000 to purchase and about $500 per hour to fly. By comparison, a standard commercial-grade drone costs anywhere between $1,000 and $15,000. There are also savings in fuel and operations, especially if you bring your drone program in-house. While drones can’t completely replace helicopters, they can accomplish many essential functions. An accurate cost analysis will help you make the case.  


As you get your drones up-and-running, you’ll also need to determine how you will manage your program. What’s your plan for abiding by privacy and regulatory rules? How will you check airspace information and flight restrictions? And how will you hold crews accountable in the field? With the right aviation management platform, you can plan, fly and log your missions. You can check controlled airspace to obtain immediate access in seconds. And you can easily manage flight crews on multiple flights, track all the drones and personnel in your fleet and view historical data and trends—all from a centralized location. 


If you’re operating commercially in the U.S., you need to comply with Part 107 of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, the rules that govern commercial drone use. The FAA’s Part 107 sets requirements for pilot licensing, maximum altitude and airspeed, available airspace and much more. Commercial drone operators are generally not permitted to fly in controlled airspaces—including areas around airports, stadiums, national parks and other sites. They’re also not permitted to fly over people, over 400 feet above ground level or beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. As you incorporate drones into your news coverage, it’s critical that you understand and comply with all regulatory requirements, while knowing how to obtain any necessary waivers.  


Qualified, competent pilots are essential to a drone operation—not just for safety, but also to ensure you get the best possible footage. A drone pilot certification is much more accessible than a helicopter pilot’s license, with certification possible in a matter of weeks. Drone pilots in the U.S. are required to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate by passing a knowledge test and obtaining renewal every two years. Although some testing centers across the U.S. have been shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many have since reopened. A list of the reopened testing centers can be found at PSI Online


As you launch your program, realize that the opportunities are rapidly expanding. In the near future, for example, operators may be able to deploy drones to autonomously monitor traffic and weather patterns daily at the push of a button. And thanks to 5G cellular networks, they’ll be able to live stream high-definition video with virtually no lag. What’s more, regulations are being developed to lay the groundwork for connected drones and flights that go beyond the operator’s visual line of sight, allowing for longer flights into more remote areas. Future regulations may also pave the way for AI-powered drones that deliver better data faster and help with emergency situations such as assessing storm damage. By keeping up with new developments, you can plan ahead to achieve your goals—and continue to broaden your program over time. 


During a time of high news interest and tight budgets, drones can save costs, increase revenue and provide the high-quality footage that differentiates your news organization. By following these six tips, you can jumpstart your drone program—giving your media company the competitive edge it needs both now and into the future.  

To learn more, please see the Skyward “Media & Broadcast” webpage

Ryan Wall is director of business development and strategic planning at Skyward, A Verizon company. He enjoys collaborating with enterprises to help them stand up successful drone programs. For more than a decade, Ryan has served in the Air National Guard, where he is currently an egress systems craftsman.