You might say that KATV has a new drone to play with, but it’s no toy; instead, it’s a sophisticated newsgathering tool costing at least $6,000, not counting the employees who fly it.
Channel 7 is one of six Sinclair Broadcast Group television stations experimenting with drones nationwide, and it has already aired significant footage from its quad-copter drone, a DJI Inspire 1 known as Sky 7 and equipped with a high-definition zoom camera.
“We get beauty shots for weather on occasion,” said News Director Nick Genty, but otherwise the drone is pretty much all business. “We sent Sky 7 to the flooding in Iowa and to Charleston, South Carolina, for the hurricane. We’ve used it here for shots of War Memorial, the Saline County Fair, Friday Night Tailgate and traffic.”
And in an age where manned local news helicopters have largely flown into the sunset, drones offer a more economical eye in the sky. By the end of next year, Sinclair hopes to have 40 of its 81 U.S. stations flying quad-copters to gather news video. It paid between $6,000 and $8,000 for the KATV drone, support gear and its Zenmuse X5 gimbal camera, Genty said. “It’s an investment, but well worth it.”
Senior Editor Barry Deere and Brian Emfinger, one of the station’s photographers, are the drone’s pilots. Jeff Rose, Sinclair’s chief pilot in the drone program, says safety is the top priority. “Our policy is to have two operators for each aircraft,” he said, “one to fly the drone and one to focus solely on the photography. We also meet with local law enforcement as part of our training.”
In Little Rock’s competitive TV news market, Genty called the drone a game-changer. “No one in this market will be able to give the kind of aerial views of news like KATV can,” he said. “We plan on using it in spot news situations where we can bring the viewer a different perspective than ground shots.”
For example, he said, the drone could show the terrain if someone were missing in the woods, and even help in the search. “I really see it being used after severe weather to show the magnitude of the damage.”
Genty said both Deere and Emfinger have been licensed to fly by the Federal Aviation Administration, and that they had spent a week at Virginia Tech mastering the equipment and learning FAA regulations. Sinclair has been working with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech to train its “drone teams.”
Genty said the station is excited about possibilities with the drone. “Our on-air people are constantly thinking about how they can use Sky 7 for their stories.”
Channel 7 couldn’t use the drone in covering the recent implosions that didn’t quite bring down the Broadway Bridge over the Arkansas River. “Unfortunately, the bridge is within 5 miles of the airport, in restricted airspace, and we couldn’t use it for that,” Genty said.