5 steps you need to take before you can jump into drone journalism.

By Matt Waite

If all the talk about new drones rules has you ready to buy one for your newsroom, there are a few things you ought to know first. Just because the FAA says there’s a legal path to drone use doesn’t mean you can just go buy one and start using it for your news organization. The FAA is just the first step. Here are 5 steps you need to take before you can jump into drone journalism.


Matt Waite, University of Nebraska
Matt Waite, University of Nebraska

1. First things first, your employees must get through the FAA’s certification test. It’s a computer-based test, given only at certified flight schools, and it’s 60 multiple choice questions. Your employee will have two hours to take it and it’ll cost $150. Easy, right? Wrong. It covers a lot of aviation knowledge that unless you study — or you’ve been to ground school before — it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You can’t just read a few things online and try to bluff your way through. It covers some very specific knowledge about airspace, aviation weather reports, navigation charts, aeronautics and the nitty-gritty of the FAA’s new rules. We held a drone journalism boot camp at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where I coached journalists from around the country through the test. So far, students from that boot camp are a perfect 16 for 16 taking the test. All of them said it was a lot harder than they expected going in.


2. After you get employees certified, you need to get insurance. Your general liability policy does not cover aircraft. So if your new pilot crashes one into a grade-school class, your insurance company is not going to be with you. You should first find out if your insurance provider is offering an aviation rider — many are jumping into that now — but there’s also a bit of a gold rush going on in drone insurance. A lot of news organizations are asking me about drone insurance and unfortunately I can’t offer much help. I’m fortunate to work for an organization that recognized the need for insurance early and got set up with its insurance provider before I even had to ask. What I’m told by people out there is that prices vary wildly, and caveat emptor. The cheapest policy with bobsbaitanddroneinsurance.com might not be the best if something goes horribly wrong.

3. With a Part 107 certified pilot and insurance, now you need an operations manual. You need internal policies that can guide you day to day and when things get sticky. We’ve created one that will get you started. You can get it at http://www.dronejournalismlab.org. It’s an open source, creative commons licensed document, which means you’re free to use it however you need. Use it as a foundation for your own practices, or use it verbatim. All we ask is that if you have ideas, kick them back to us so we can incorporate them in the document, make it better and help the industry. Your operations manual should, at a minimum, define roles and what the pilot in command must do each and every time they fly, from pre-flight inspections that are required by the FAA to post-flight logging, which will help you to know when your drone is needing to go to the shop or be replaced. But there’s one thing your operations manual should make very, very clear …

4. Whatever policies you put into place internally, know this: Drone pilots are pilots to the FAA. Your employee, certified by the FAA, is the Pilot in Command and has the final authority on if they can conduct the flight safely. If there’s a crash that hurts someone, the FAA will hold the Pilot in Command responsible. If there’s a violation of FAA rules, it’s the Pilot in Command who faces discipline. The news director screaming into the phone won’t have his or her license stripped. The producer throwing a fit because they won’t have a drone shot for a story isn’t risking their federal certification. Newsrooms that have helicopters know this very well: If a manned helicopter pilot says no flight today, that’s it. It should be no different with drone pilots. I’m honestly betting on there being a wrongful termination lawsuit coming from a newsroom because of this. You can mitigate this risk by training your managers up front: There are rules beyond their authority here, and the Pilot in Command is the final authority on if a flight happens or not. If they say no, that’s the end of it.

5. Now go get practice. News involves people, and a drone pilot’s first flight shouldn’t be on a story. Find a field or a park somewhere and practice. On company time. Learn how to control the drone to get the shots you want. Watch other drone videos online and map out the types of shots you might use. Examples: A long tracking shot following something that stretches for a long time; A gently rising boom shot showing how something stretches into the horizon, a sideways strafing shot. With practice, they and others much more complex are easy to pull off. And realize — just because you have a new hammer, it doesn’t mean everything is a nail. Every traffic crash, house fire, community festival and high school football game doesn’t need a drone shot. Part of practice is learning what drones are good for and what they aren’t.
Matt Waite is a world-renowned expert in Drone Journalism. He is a professor of practice in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska, where he also oversees their Drone Journalism Lab.

You can reach Matt at: matt.waite@unl.edu