When it comes to using drones for newsgathering, Greg Agvent is the closest thing the industry has to a wisdom-filled graybeard. That’s because the concept of gathering pictures and video with small, remotely controlled aerial vehicles only caught on during the last decade. “A lot of people still look at these as toys,” says Agvent, who serves as director of CNN aerial imagery and reporting. “We look at them as tools. And a drone in national airspace is treated the same as an aircraft, with the same responsibilities to fly safely.” But while the future uses of drones, and how they will be managed, is still up in the air, their
importance to news organizations is not.
How did you get into drones? Your college degree is in mass communications.
I’ve been with CNN for many, many years, and in the course of my career I became transfixed with how new technology could be applied to aid our journalists. That started years before drones became an issue. But because my work and my knowledge were a bridge between editorial and engineering, I was tapped to look into the potential of drones for newsgathering. One thing led to another and it became a full-time gig. Today we have 82 pilots handling more than 100 drones flying in the U.S. on behalf of CNN and Warner Brothers Discovery. We fly models that weigh from .55 pounds (about the same as a loaf of bread) to 55 pounds.
Pretty much every video-based newsgathering service flies drones now. Yet a decade ago they were barely a “thing.” Does the speed of adoption surprise you?
Frankly, it was apparent to us from the very beginning that the value proposition for adding a drone to your journalistic kit would pay off. We started our program in 2015 with what amounted to a small, proof-of-concept experiment. We didn’t know anything about aviation. We’re journalists. We paired with Georgia Tech, and we made an early commitment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do things right. We actually received the very first waiver for operations over people in 2016. And we got it because we saw the potential for this technology, and we proved that it could be a capable and useful tool for our journalists. Drones have gone from “What is a drone?” to “A drone is a nice thing to have,” to the idea that a drone is a “must have” for many of the stories we cover. If you’re dealing with video as a medium, you’re going to want drones in your toolkit.
What are drones typically used for?
Sometimes you just need pretty pictures. You need a bump shot or a shot for an opener. So instead of paying a helicopter to get it, you use a drone that operates for a fraction of the cost. The second use is enhanced storytelling. For instance, CNN sent a crew to Greenland not long ago for a story about melting icebergs. With a drone, we were able to fly over the icebergs and document the stunning fact that they were literally melting from within. It’s so warm that there are now lakes of melted ice water on the glaciers. We saw that with the drones, and it added so much to the story. Finally, the major use is breaking news. We can add context, we can add understanding, we can add scope to a news event. Look no further than Hurricane Ian. CNN had 15 drone-capable staffers in and around the affected area.
What’s the role of drones for print publications?
Obviously, a drone that can shoot video can also shoot stills. That can carry as much value as a moving picture. For example, after Hurricane Ian the causeway to Sanibel Island was wiped out. A still picture from a boat or from land is going to show you one perspective. But that aerial perspective will make it that much more powerful.
With so many drones taking to the skies, has there been much pushback from regulators?
It’s new technology, and it’s not just the news media that’s out there. Police, fire departments and other public safety groups all utilize drones. And the numbers keep growing. There’s the potential for a very crowded sky. Anybody who’s going to utilize drones for journalism has to acknowledge that there’s a degree of risk. You could lose your data link, which means the drone simply flies away. Those are rare, but problematic. You could have a catastrophic failure, in which the drone crashes and hurts a human being. Or you could have interference from the public, or simply poor decision making by your pilot. There’s all kinds of risks. It’s very important to acknowledge and mitigate them. We spend as much time educating others on the use of drones as we do on ourselves. We work very closely with public safety agencies. For instance, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, we worked in the same airspace with low-flying helicopters conducting rescues, airplanes and other drones. We had to coordinate with each other to manage that airspace. Otherwise, you’re asking for a catastrophic outcome.
Are there any high-tech advances on the way to help with traffic control?
There are some very important regulations that are about to be put into effect, such as remote identification of drones, so you know who’s in the air around you. If the police or an emergency response crew sees a drone nearby, they can check its broadcast ID number and find out to whom it belongs, and whether it has clearance to be there.
We recently saw footage of the first drone-on-drone dogfight, which took place in Ukraine. And off-the-shelf drones have been modified to carry weapons. Does this worry you?
In 2018, the president of Venezuela was attacked by two armed drones. That’s one of the reasons why remote identification is so important. That’s also why security agencies around the country are very concerned about the proliferation of drone use. We just completed an assignment with our sister station, TBS Sports, in which we were asked to fly over the baseball stadiums during the American League Championship series. Well, temporary flight restrictions typically ban drones from coming within three nautical miles of open-air stadiums holding more than 30,000 people. We got permission, but my legal, compliant drone team spotted another, unidentified drone in the same airspace at the same time. It could have been a threat.
What do other newsgathering agencies ask you about?
It’s things like how much it costs and how training works. Also, what equipment do we use and how did we select it. We have 82 pilots, and a manual for [the drones’] use. We have a safety management system that requires them to report problems. That comes from a commitment made at the very top of the company to put safety first.
Have you seen anyone using drones in a new, unexpected way?
Some come with forward-looking infrared radar, which allows you to spot humans or animals using their heat signature. There was a case not too long ago of a lost dog in Colorado that had been missing for three weeks. The local police department put up a $20,000 FLIR drone and found the dog in five minutes. It wasn’t done by a newsgathering agency, but it certainly got a lot of coverage, including
That’s kind of heartwarming, until you consider the implications of systems that can pursue specific individuals in such a granular way. When does this go from newsgathering to surveillance?
Privacy is a significant issue, and the ethical use of a drone is something that every journalistic entity is going to have to do on its own. Nationally, the Press Photographers Association and several other groups have developed best practices for drones. It’s important to understand that drones are just another tool in our toolbox and should not be used in ways that are ethically different from other tools.
Featured photo by CNN
Sam Stall has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles, including an interview with Les Zaitz for the Fall 2020 issue of Quill.