Keeping UAS Out Of The News

By Patrick C. Miller | October 16, 2014

Photo editor John Dixon has been shooting pictures for The News-Gazette in the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, area for 40 years. About six months ago, the newspaper added a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter equipped with a GoPro high-resolution camera to the box of tools he uses for capturing images.

Given that the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t approved the use of UAVs for commercial purposes, I wondered how The News-Gazette could post Dixon’s videos on its website, such as this “Aerial tour of Allerton Park.”

“It doesn’t concern me much because the company had a lawyer look at this,” Dixon said when I asked him whether anyone has raised objections.

“We haven’t been approached by anyone in law enforcement or the FAA,” he volunteered. “Until somebody says you can’t, the old rule of journalism is to go until somebody says you can’t go any further.”

Dixon’s philosophy behind operating the UAV (nicknamed Tumbleweed) probably helps keep it a witness to news rather than an item in the news.

“I try to be very responsible with it,” he explained.

That means letting other editors at the newspaper know he won’t fly Tumbleweed over crowds and that he respects police lines.

“Does a police line extend vertically? I believe it does,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to fly it at a news event as long as I was behind the police line. It just makes me a taller photographer on a ladder.”

Safety is always on Dixon’s mind when operating the quadcopter, which he describes as a "weed whacker on steroids."

“If I don’t have a good way to avoid an unforeseen circumstance, I’m not going to fly it and risk the possibility of dropping into a big crowd of people where it would cause a problem. The last thing I want to do is become the focus of an event,” he said.

Coming from the era of film cameras, learning to take advantage of the UAV’s abilities as photographer and learning how to fly it at the same time has been something of a challenge.

“It’s a new tool and it’s a big learning curve to fly it—where to use it and how to use it,” Dixon said. “It provides you with spectacular viewpoints that you just wouldn’t see any other way, not even if you were flying aerial photography from an airplane or a fixed-platform helicopter.”

Public acceptance of The News-Gazette’s UAV also helps keep it under the regulatory radar. When Dixon flies it at events, people notice it and usually wave at it. But more importantly, it’s his approach to operating a UAV in public.

“In any profession, there are always people who approach it with common sense and understand the rules and those who don’t,” Dixon said. “Like anything that’s new, some people are going to do things that aren’t appropriate. They’re going to generate some concern and probably some headlines. The vast majority of people will operate UAVs safely and use them to create interesting images for their readers to see.”