Think Twice Before Shooting News

I’ve been a TV news reporter/videographer for many years and have been at all types of crime scenes: shootings, stabbings, arson fires, hostage takings, and even the crash site of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania shortly after the plane went down.  I thought I knew the rules of crime reporting/videography until I was requested to shoot drone footage of a crime scene along the Pennsylvania Turnpike where three people died.

If you’re thinking of listening to the police radio, and heading out with your drone to shoot a crime scene or a car crash, I urge you to think twice for several reasons. If your motivation is a pay day you’ll likely be disappointed. Several of the biggest group owners of TV stations will not touch drone footage. The companies believe their is some sort of liability on their end and TV stations don’t pay viewers for news video; even if it is from a drone. Second, if you don’t have experience with law enforcement or the fire service expect to be denied access at road blocks. And finally, you need to understand the TV news process of putting together a story so you shoot pictures that will work on TV news.  My experience at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Toll Plaza will illustrate.

First, my Section 333 exemption hasn’t been granted by the FAA as of this writing so I was flying as a drone enthusiast which means I couldn’t accept payment even if it was offered. I was stopped at a road block at least a mile from the scene. My experience in news has been almost all road blocks have a way around them. You look for the side roads, and in this case, a side road that was close enough to hike into the scene from. Many police agencies don’t appreciate their perimeters being violated, so unless you are willing to accept the consequences, turn around and go home. Flying from the road block was not an option since the drone would have been out of my sight and likely out of radio range.

The photo with this post is the crime scene.  As you can see it covers a large area and all the flashing lights are gone. The action has been over for hours. If you didn make it to the scene imagine how disappointed you’d be in light of the risks and effort to get there. You might be tempted not to fly because the pictures are so boring.  But does the lack of action make your pictures any less important? No it does not. Shooting a blazing house fire is easy; it is eye candy. Shooting a static crime scene like this requires creativity because you have to anticipate what pictures a reporter will need to support the story they  write.

At this point you’ve accepted that the only benefit of flying maybe a shot to post on social media. Now you have to figure out how to capture this large crime scene while obeying federal law and FAA guidance that you cannot fly over emergency response efforts.  Since there was no immediate action to capture my first step was to learn as much as possible about the story from witnesses and other news people. Taking the time to talk revealed vital pieces of information about how to fly the scene.  The most critical piece of information was that the overall crime scene was made up of three smaller crime scenes.  The first of the three smaller crime scenes was the tollbooth plaza in the middle right of the picture. The building right next to the toll plaza is scene two, and scene three is where you see the red van in the left-center of the picture. It could be argued that there was no emergency response effort underway at the time I was flying, but I didn’t want to argue my case with police so I kept the done behind police lines at all times. No attempt was made to enter the airspace over the scene.

According to state police the crime started at about 7 a.m. when the gunman confronted two turnpike employees working at one of the toll booths. He displayed a handgun, forced them into the nearby office building and attempted to tie them up. A struggle followed and the gunman took off.  The employees managed to free themselves and followed the gunman outside. Coincidently a toll collection vehicle arrived at the interchange. One of the two employees the gunman first encountered approached the collection vehicle and got the passenger out. The gunman fatally shot the pair and then continued shooting at the vehicle. The driver got out and was able to escape on foot. The gunman then got into the toll collection vehicle and drove it a short distance across PA. 522, which is the road being blocked by the orange truck, to an area where his own vehicle was parked. He began unloading money into his vehicle. The first state trooper to arrive encountered the gunman from a distance, and the two exchanged gunfire. The gunman was shot, and died at the scene.

Now that you know what happened you can see how this one shot was so important in telling the story.  It helped viewers understand how the small events formed into a large crime. It was a shot that could only come from a drone and why I believe every newsrooms will one day have a drone journalist, not just a drone pilot.

See the finished story here: WTAJ Turnpike Shooting Story

Hecklers, Spectators and Students

I don’t devote every flying day to snapping the picture that will get 1,000 likes on Instagram. I set aside training days devoted to improving specific skills like flying in windy conditions, or quickly being able to set-up a waypoint flight. When I train I try and go to a secluded area like an open field behind a school so I can concentrate on perfect practice. But I’d say almost every flight is interrupted by a heckler, spectator, or would-be drone owner.

The heckler is the person who immediately shouts “hey, you have a license for that?” Or, “I better not see that over my property or I’ll shoot it down.” And then there is the “you can’t fly that here.”

When confronted like this the first thing you should do is access your personal safety. Does the person confronting you have the visible means to hurt you or damage your gear? Take a look at the photo. Is that man a threat? At first glance he is a threat!   I’d be very concerned about what he can do with the cane he is carrying. I let the drone hover while assuring my own safety. Once I feel secure I land the drone and deal with the verbal threat. Auto landing comes in handy, but I like to land the aircraft some distance away to prevent a heckler from trying to damage the drone. I haven’t had anyone attempt to attack my drone, but why take the risk.

Next you should try and understand exactly what the person is  saying and the tone of voice they are using to say it. The “hey you have a license for that?” can be said in a threatening tone, or most often people say it using a sarcastic tone of voice. If they’re using a sarcastic tone I’ve found people use it as a lead-in to see if you are willing to answer questions.

If a heckler is using a threatening tone of voice I keep my speech patten very matter-of-fact and of normal volume. I tell them I am in compliance with all local laws and show them my FAA registration which I printed, laminated and attached to my lanyard. Showing my registration has worked every time to defuse this situation.

I use the same tone of voice for those who threaten a shoot-down. their property. I explain that people have gone to jail for doing that and conscientious pilots don’t fly over anyones property without permission.  If they don’t believe you point them to articles on the internet like this one.

Prison for Shooting Down Drone

I keep the link on my phone for quick access.

For the “you can’t fly here” folks I’ve show them the FAA’s B4UFLY app and prove I’m not within five miles of an airport.  I also tell these people I’m in compliance with all local laws.

You have to deal with these threats as courteously as possible otherwise you risk reinforcing all the negative news this person has probably hear about drones. No use feeding their preconceived notions that drones are peeking in peoples widows on a daily basis, or are a constant risk to commercial air traffic.

Spectators are usually harmless. If they don’t approach I look at them as a way to spread some goodwill about drones. My Phantom is usually in flight at this point so I always ask them to stay behind me for safety reasons and will then show them some basic maneuvers. If they don’t follow my safety instructions I land immediately and answer any questions they may have. All most all of them ask how high it will go, or how fast it can move forward or side-to-side. After they watch for a few minutes they usually continue walking the dog, finishing their run, or other activity. Once you land the aircraft the entertainment factor is gone, and they move on.

A few minutes spent on a flying demo or answering questions is good public relations is time well spent; then back to practice.

Finally, the students and would-be students. My last practice trip I had a gentleman tell me that he has a new Phantom 2 at home; the seal on the box still unbroken. He wanted me to teach him the basics of flying because he said it looked so easy while I was on the sticks.  I chuckled and told him he should have been around for the times I crashed my Phantom 2 or put in into some trees while I learned.

I could see the buyers regret setting in on his face. I wonder how many other drones are sitting in boxes because their owners are looking for teachers. Then there are the drone owners who have done a flight or two and have specific questions. The problem here is real questions can consume a lot of your battery life and practice time. I could just refer them to any number of video’s on the internet, but the interactive experience with a more knowledgeable pilot is the best training. So, I always take the time to answer questions and hopefully enhance the drone communities image.

Hecklers, spectators and students are going to be around until the novelty of drone flight wears off. Until that time you should have a plan for how you are going to handle a member of this trio on your next flight.

Oh, the guy in the picture. A gracious gentleman just out for a walk. His most threatening question. Can you take my picture?

Section 333 Exemption Delays

If you have filed for a Section 333 exemption you’ll be waiting more than 120 days. I filed mine back before Christmas 2015. I have customers waiting for my business Pennsylvania SkyOps to launch so I asked my congressman if he could check on the application. The FAA replied back that they are running at least 150 days or longer because of a huge backlog. They also handle them in the order they come in. So, if you filed after Jan 1 2016 you’re looking at May before they look at your application.

Onagofly Still Grounded

No luck on getting the props turning on my Onagofly. Two opposite warnings / indications from the aircraft. The first is the phone display shows GPS as not available, but the indicator lights on the tail of the drone are flashing blue, which means a GPS signal is available. Second the display says my battery is at only 10% but no flashing reds, or low battery alarm on the done either. To make matters worse, when I started the camera to record my flight, the phone display distorted to the point I couldn’t see the controls.  It’s new to the market, so I’ll keep posting my progress for other Onafgofly pilots having trouble.

Onagofly Fail

WARNING to new Onagofly pilots. TURN ON OBJECT AVOIDANCE BEFORE YOU LAUNCH FOR THE FIRST TIME. Flying with your phone takes some practice. After a few minutes I got close to a wall and thought, no problem, object avoidance will protect me. Wrong! Documentation/Support is lacking. After the crash the app says to turn on GPS mode. No where in the set-up can I find how to do that. No luck on line either. Disappointed so far. Maybe my opinion will change if I can get it back in the air.

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