Fox has a drone army that comprises nearly 90 fully trained drone pilots and more than 100 “visual observers” who accompany the pilots on every shoot to help out and insure safely. They are at work at 13 of Fox’s 16 news stations and at 11 Fox News Channel bureaus. The goal is eventually to have multiple crews at every location. Above, a recent class photo from a drone flight school in Cumming, Ga.
When a massive fire broke out beneath an elevated section of Interstate 85 in Atlanta last March, Fox’s WAGA was soon on the scene broadcasting dramatic images from a helicopter that it shares with other stations in the market.
But the fire and the resulting collapse of the section and closing of a major artery in the traffic-choked city was just the beginning of the story. Over the next several weeks, construction crews moved in to clean up the wreckage, rebuild the span and get the city moving normally again.
And for that story, WAGA found that the best tool for capturing video was not the high-flying chopper, but slow-moving drones. They could get up close and swoop in for shots that were just not possible otherwise.
“I like to say that the first day belonged to the news helicopters, but the next 45 days of the story belonged to the drones,” says Doug Evans, who has added drone pilot to his other WAGA duties as reporter, anchor and meteorologist.
That WAGA was ready to exploit drones to tell the story was not serendipity. It was the result of a WAGA-led initiative, begun the prior fall, to equip all the Fox O&Os and Fox News Channel bureaus with drones and to train a corps to operate them.
“I see it as a way for some of our very creative and talented storytellers to add a perspective to stories that they haven’t had in the past,” says WAGA GM Bill Schneider, who along with Evans and VP of Engineering and Operations Neil Mazur were the prime movers in the drone program.
Sharri Berg, COO, news and operations, Fox Television Stations, who oversees the program from the corporate level, says drones will soon become a “standard tool of newsgathering — on the roster along with trucks, cameras and streaming backpacks.”
Drones are to helicopters as the backpacks are to satellite and microwave trucks, she says. “While the drones are not as robust as helicopters, they give you the ability to be in more places at once with more flexibility and differentiation.”
According to Berg, Fox’s drone army now comprises nearly 90 fully trained drone pilots and more than 100 “visual observers” who accompany the pilots on every shoot to help out and insure safely.
The pilots and so-called VOs are now at work in 13 of Fox’s 16 news-producing stations and at 11 bureaus, she says. The goal is eventually to have multiple crews at every location.
Berg claims the cost is not onerous. Two drones “kits” — two drones and appurtenances — can be had for around $10,000. The only other significant cost is the training and the travel and lodging associated with it, she says.
So far, Fox has flown more than 600 missions, Mazur says. “Some of our stations are flying multiple times a day, others not as often. They’re used for breaking news, enterprise, sports, weather and, of course, promos because we do a lot of image work.”
Creative services is a big user of the drones, says GM Schneider. “Let’s face it, the ability to use helicopter video in your creative services stories is somewhat limited, but the ability to bring your drone video into your topicals is substantial.
“During the Christmas season, we were able to show some homes dressed up in lights that I don’t think we could have otherwise. The creative services guys did a lot of the shooting and were able to help connect us with the city.”
But news is the focus of the drone program, Schneider says. An investigative team used a drone to get a good look at the roof of a car wash that was suspected of being a homeless encampment. “This was far superior to what a helicopter could have done for us.”
But it’s not always a case of helicopter or drone, says Schneider. “When the Georgia Dome was imploded, I believe we used a combination of helicopter and drone videos to create a kind of a really unique story and from different perspectives.”
“In the editorial process, they are going through that kind of conversation that you and I are having right now. How can we utilize the drone? Is this a helicopter story? Is it neither? I think it becomes part of the DNA or the fabric of the editorial process.”
Fox is not alone. Other stations and groups have been putting drones to work to varying degree. For the Georgia Dome implosion, Evans says, other Atlanta TV stations as drones in air as did public safety officials and the company doing the demolition.
Like Fox, Sinclair implemented a groupwide effort that has, according to Chief Pilot Jeff Rose, so far produced 75 certified pilots. “We are operating in 34 markets,” he says. “We plan to grow our program in 2018 as we have first training session of the year scheduled for March at Virginia Tech.”
As with other station groups, Fox’s interest in drones as an everyday newsgathering tool took off in August 2016 when the Federal Aviation Administration relaxed rules governing commercial drone use.
Though less onerous than the old rules, the new Part 107 rules still impose stiff restrictions on commercial drones. They can’t fly near airports, directly over people, higher than 400 feet, more than 100 miles per hour or beyond the sight of the pilot or, in some cases, a companion “visual observer.”
For safety, Fox goes far beyond what is required by the FAA and mandates a visual observer on all drone shoots. “The FAA requires that you always have eyes on the drone,” explains David Keneipp, SVP of legal affair for the Fox stations.
“If your main objective is to acquire nice pictures, you need somebody who is spending his or her full time or substantially full time framing up the shot and aiming the camera. That means you need somebody else on the drone.”
According to Doug, the pilot training starts with an online course that prepares one for the FAA’s Part 107 test. If the candidate passes, they spend the better part of three days in field training at Atlanta Hobby, a drone-flying school in Cumming, Ga., about 40 miles northeast of WAGA.
“They will learn how to fly, they will learn how to take care of the craft, they will learn some of the safety rules that apply to Fox stations that are unique beyond even FAA requirements,” Evans says.
After that, the candidate must acquire 15 hours of flight time in practice and then produce a video showing what they can do. The “check ride” is the final test and it’s judged by Mazur, Evans and others.
“We are pretty tough on them,” Evans says. “They have got to pass that final check ride. Then we sign them off and they can begin operations after that.”
VOs don’t require as much training, Mazur adds. In some cases, they are pilots in training. “Anyone who possesses a part 107 is, after a certain number of hours of training, certified to be a visual observer.
Mazur says Fox’s risk management division helped set up the training program. “They were the ones who decided that it would be best if the pilots had so many hours of training and so many hours of currency, but at this point they have pretty much left it to us to shepherd the program on a daily basis.”
The obsession with safety and staying on the right side of the FAA also led Fox to keep a tight rein for when and how drones are used. Before going out, pilots must clear their flights with a member of the “flight desk” that includes Schneider, Mazur, Evans and Keneipp.
“The pilot will submit online a description of his or her intentions including the air space they are going to be flying in and weather,” says Mazur. “The flight desk acts as a second set of eyes.”
The FAA will consider waivers of its restrictions. In fact, says Mazur, WAGA has gotten one that allows it to operate at night. “We have been working on an internal protocol to roll out the [night] waiver requirements to our other stations.”
Ever cautious, Mazur says, even with the waiver, Fox requires its pilots put in an extra five hours of practice at night before allowing them to go out on a night shoot.
According to Mazur, each station or bureau typically has two aircraft, either DJI Inspire Is or newer Inspire IIs.
“A couple of the stations are also flying [DJI] Mavics and Phantoms. Here at WAGA we have six aircraft that are registered and that are flown fairly routinely — two Inspires, a Mavic and three Phantoms.”
The Fox executives involved with drones anticipate that their use of drones will increase as the technology improves and the restrictions loosen. “It’s really exceeded our expectations,” says Berg. “It’s not drones versus helicopters; it’s about looking for differentiations.”