Broadcast engineers share some interesting common traits. Most are driven by natural curiosity and a love of new gadgets. The best are as reliable as the National Bureau of Standards, know that the show must go on, and instinctively place the safety of the station and people first. They also have the uncanny the ability to temporarily overcome many Murphy’s Law gaffes with gaffer tape.
Part of the fun of being a broadcast engineer is that there is always a new technology to learn and new gadgets to master and fix when they break. Some are purely electronic like Apple’s iPad. Others are more an electromechanical mix, such as studio camera automation systems. Then, there’s the drone.
Look! Up in the sky!
An amazing new gadget is on the newsroom’s horizon, and it’s a drone, also known as a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). By any name, it is the latest high-tech electro-mechanical device coming to news gatherers and who-knows-what-else near you. Drones are rapidly becoming the latest rage, except for one thing: It is against the law to operate a drone in the United States for commercial purposes. Similar to amateur radio regulations, commercial use is flatly forbidden. However, that limitation is scheduled to change.
A recent story on CBS DC championed Schiebel Corporation’s Camcopter S-100 as an example of the potential of a UAV in ENG. The Schiebel S-100 with the accessory packages that would make it useful for ENG weighs nearly 300lb and costs north of $300,000.
I saw the Schiebel S-100 at NAB2012. There was a curious crowd in the booth, but to me it looked more cinema than television. A demo reel at Brain Farm tells that story in a strikingly visual way, and is definitely worth taking a moment to watch.
The S-100 struck me as expensive at the time, but compared to operating a real helicopter, the capital purchase and operating costs were fractional. The upfront cost is similar to a fully outfitted SNG van, but the Schiebel S-100 is, some might say, the CL-Class Mercedes of drones. It’s big, heavy and reliable, and it dominates its airspace. There are also a variety of Miata-class and go-cart class drones available from a variety of sources, most sporting 640 x 480 analog systems. Some come as a kit. Is it “broadcast-quality?” Absolutely, if it’s the right story. It’s also illegal as heck in the USA at any resolution if used commercially.
While searching for more drone ENG information, one person’s name began to routinely appear. That person is Journalism Professor Matthew Waite at University of Nebraska - Lincoln. More research indicated he is a drone journalism go-to guy. I sent him an e-mail, and the next morning we were chatting on the phone.
Turns out Professor Waite is thinking in terms larger than TV ENG. The former newspaper reporter spent much of his journalism career at the Tampa Bay Times reporting on natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. He began to recognize the need for aerial video as he learned how difficult it was to know where and how far damage extends. Few news operations have a manned aircraft available for every story where one would be helpful. An aerial platform could provide great leads for scoops. He wondered if there was an affordable solution.
Fast forward to a Digital Mapping Conference that Professor Waite attended just over a year ago. There, he was introduced to the Gatewing X100 Ariel Mapping Platform, which you can see here. It has the ability for the pilot to pre-program the flight path with GPS waypoints on a laptop, and the drone will automatically and autonomously carry out the mission upon demand. Its cost is about $65,000 and is illegal for use in the USA. However, that’s when the concept of drone journalism struck the professor.