In Arkansas, Drones Take Place of News Choppers

During the last two months, both Facebook and Google have acquired companies that manufacture remote aircraft. Machines that resemble tiny, lithe airplanes or spider-like helicopters can be seen buzzing through hundreds of YouTube videos, and Amazon is known to be developing tech that would use the aircraft to deliver packages.

All that to say: The drones are here, and they’re here to stay.

So how is the technology being used in Arkansas? One area: news. The days of the humble news chopper are waning. It’s now cheaper, easier and more effective to shoot stories with drones.

News stations are adapting to this change in different ways. Some are hiring freelancers with access to the technology.

For example, Tim Trieschmann of Little Rock owns three remote helicopters. Through his company, The Shot Above, he has shot videos for most of the city’s news stations, including KARK-TV, Channel 4; KTHV-TV, Channel 11; and KLRT-TV, Channel 16. Other local aerial photographers, such as Robert Davis, have done similar jobs.

“It’s really a replacement to when news agencies all had helicopters … they don’t have helicopters anymore,” Trieschmann said. “So any event that would justify a full-size helicopter, they’d call me.”

(Video: You can see local examples of aerial footage at the end of this article.)

In February, Trieschmann shot video for KARK of the Majestic Hotel burning in Hot Springs.

“Obviously, from the ground, you could see the flames and smoke, but you couldn’t see the impact,” said Austin Kellerman, news director of KARK. “What he was able to do was fly the machine up above. That gave you a first look at how much the inside had burned and the extent of the damage. From a news content-gathering perspective, that was pretty valuable.”

The stability afforded by the modern multirotor drones can supply video that’s actually better than what a regular news chopper might shoot.

In a manned helicopter, “sometimes the quality of video and perspective isn’t all that great. It can be almost distracting; depending on the setup, the camera might shake and the video would not necessarily be that clean,” Kellerman said.

The cost of hiring an aerial photographer, he noted, tends to be about half that of hiring a helicopter pilot.

KATV, Channel 7, also used an aerial camera to cover the Majestic fire.

News Director Nick Genty said a station photographer, Brian Emfinger, owns his own aircraft that he uses in news shoots.

Nebulous Regulations

For some stations, however, drone technology remains controversial.

“We’re not utilizing drones,” said Michael Caplan, general manager of KTHV.

Trieschmann’s work for that station has been for promotional videos only, not for news coverage.

Caplan said one reason the station isn’t using Trieschmann or other drone operators for breaking news is because of uncertain regulation surrounding the tech.

Congress has given the Federal Aviation Administration a deadline of 2015 to come up with a plan for regulating personal unmanned aircraft. In the past, the FAA has treated personal drones as if they were manned aircraft, resulting in some photographers being hit with lawsuits and fines.

To avoid this, aerial photographers follow self-imposed guidelines.

For example, Trieschmann said, he never flies his craft near airports, doesn’t shoot events where huge crowds are present and keeps his drones within 150 yards of himself.

For most shoots, Trieschmann said, he seeks permission to film before flying there.

“If I’m flying, for instance, over the River Market, or a populated area, we would talk to the tourism board,” he said.

“Same with the state Capitol. I’ve flown the state Capitol twice, for two different companies, and both times I’ve had permission from the state Capitol police and the people involved.”

“I’ve always said to stay below 400 feet,” he said. “That way you’re not going to fly into anything commercially flying overhead.”

He said photographers try to keep their aircraft within eyesight — typically within 150 yards.

“If you can see your helicopter with your own eyes, never fly farther than that,” he said. “If you do, if you lose it … you wouldn’t be able to get it back.”

He also avoids subjects that involve large crowds of people: There are liability issues.

“You’re putting your helicopter up in the air without the written permission of every single person involved,” he said. “There’s a risk, even with a real news chopper. You’re putting people at risk to some degree.”

Genty, at KATV, wasn’t too concerned about pending regulation. He said drone shoots are “definitely a wave of the future,” and noted that his photographer always seeks permission before a shoot.

Kellerman said that KARK’s use of freelancers like Trieschmann helps the station avoid potentially losing an investment in its own drones — which can cost up to $100,000 or more — in case regulations are too strict.

Still, Trieschmann is guessing that the regulations won’t affect his business too much.

Most of the other photographers in his field think that the FAA will break down remote aircraft into several categories based on size, he said.

“Your 5-year-old son flying his remote control helicopter in his backyard is not the business of the FAA,” Trieschmann said.

“This is tentative stuff, nobody knows for sure, but the feeling in the industry is that small-scale RC in the 5-pound to 10-pound size class, with a small camera, is not going to be regulated as long as they stay within eyesight and don’t fly in public areas without permission.”

Video From the Sky

You can see snippets of Trieschmann's Majestic fire footage here:

KATV also used a drone to capture footage of the aftermath of a deadly crash on I-440 in March. The shot begins at 1:44.