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Unmanned-aircraft training program raises the bar for safety in aerial journalism

November 8, 2016

unmanned aircraft flies on campus during a training program for journalists

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The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership has developed an aerial journalism training program to help reporters safely use unmanned aircraft like this one, mounted with a camera, to collect photo and video for news coverage.

For journalists, using unmanned aircraft to capture photo and video can lead to more effective reporting.

But safely deploying this new technology in environments that may be complex and unpredictable requires careful preparation. 

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership has developed a training program for journalists that is being used by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., one of the country’s largest broadcasting companies.

“Journalists have always thought about how to get the right shot — now they have to think about the flight, too,” said Mark Blanks, the director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, or MAAP. “That’s where we come in: how can you get the shot you want and still stay within the limits of aviation safety and comply with Federal Aviation Administration rules? Working with a major player like Sinclair to develop tools the news industry can use to fly responsibly is part of our mandate to integrate this technology safely into the national airspace.”

For aerial reporting, unmanned aircraft are much less expensive to own and operate than a helicopter, which are out of reach for many local stations. They are also quieter, less disruptive, and can get close shots at low altitudes that would be too risky for a helicopter.

The Federal Aviation Administration regulations now in effect allow flights of small unmanned aircraft, within certain guidelines, by operators who get a remote pilot license.

But operating unmanned aircraft safely for newsgathering, which can involve navigating dense urban environments, coordinating with other news agencies, and flying responsibly during emergencies and after natural disasters, may require insight and skills beyond what basic knowledge can cover.

“We want to try to set the standard for a program that is running as safely as possible and hopefully lead by example,” said Jeff Rose, the UAS chief pilot at Sinclair.

The training program grew out of research MAAP started last year, when the partnership signed a contract with a coalition of major media organizations, including Sinclair and other companies such as the Associated Press and Washington Post, to develop safe practices for aerial journalism.

“As soon as we heard about that, we wanted to become involved,” Rose said.

After two-week training sessions last summer for representatives from that coalition, Rose felt that personnel at as many Sinclair-owned stations as possible should have the opportunity to train at Virginia Tech, a Federal Aviation Administration-designated test site for unmanned aircraft.

MAAP developed a training program covering everything from basic aviation regulations and safety to specific-use cases for journalists.

Matt Burton, MAAP’s flight operations manager, conducts the training along with aviation safety officer Andrew Kriz.

The three-day sessions start with a day of classroom instruction on Federal Aviation Administration regulations, understanding different kinds of airspace, and other UAS fundamentals.

Then, in two days of field training, Burton and Kriz take the group through the basics of aircraft operation before moving on to more advanced maneuvers such as dealing with wind correction.

The group of trainees practices collecting images of targets that are in clear view as well as subjects that are hidden or moving. They rehearse what to do if they lose the connection to the aircraft or its GPS signal, and how to respond if another operator is flying improperly in the same airspace.

To ensure that newsgathering doesn’t interfere with lifesaving operations during an emergency, Tyson LeRoy, a medical helicopter pilot who is also a UAS pilot with MAAP, leads a session on appropriate procedures for unmanned aircraft operators when emergency services are in the area.

Training sessions started this summer and are set to continue through December 2017. At least 120 journalists will complete the program.

“Jeff and Sinclair are going above and beyond,” Burton said. “They’re outfitting their crews with the best equipment; they’re flying two-person operations with a visual observer, which is no longer required, but they’re still doing it as a safety measure.”

Sinclair and MAAP also plan to work together on research investigating protocols for UAS flights over people.

These flights are currently prohibited by Federal Aviation Administration regulations for commercial UAS operators without a waiver, but have applications for news reporting and many other industries. Research at the test sites on how to conduct those flights safely will help inform how those regulations evolve.

The partnership, based at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, tackles key challenges in the safe, evidence-based integration of UAS in the national airspace. Research on critical capabilities, such as  flights beyond the visual line of sight and detect-and-avoid technology, impacts industries from infrastructure inspection to emergency management.

Their work with Sinclair is one real-world application.

“Whether it’s news media or power line inspections, we learn so much about all these different industries,” Burton said. “We get to see an insider’s perspective on what they’re doing, and then that translates into us being better equipped to do our job. Because these industries all come together at some point in the aviation world.”

Some of the partnership’s groundbreaking projects include medical supply delivery to remote locations and work with NASA toward a traffic management platform for unmanned aircraft.

This fall, MAAP partnered with Alphabet’s Project Wing to research food delivery by unmanned aircraft, with Chipotle burritos as the cargo. 

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