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What’s the buzz? Drones are what’s happening

The same drone technology used to perform extra-judicial killings and military attacks in foreign countries is now available here in Canada, to you and me.

No, these drones don’t carry the same kind of weaponry. Not even close! Ours are lightweight, their payload cameras instead of bombs.

But they stand to have a tremendous impact on the way our news is gathered and perceived … when Transport Canada finally catches up with the technology.

Drones, of course, are unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft that can range in size from a few hundred grams to several tonnes (the latter refers to take-off weight of military drones). The most common drone for recreational or light professional use is the quadrocopter, which is carried aloft by four rotor blades.

The Telegram recently acquired the Blade 350 QX camera-equipped drone, in anticipation of the day when the device can be used for journalistic purposes. The hang-up is current federal legislation, said Telegram staff photographer Keith Gosse in an interview.

“Transport Canada regulations apply if the drone is used in any way for commercial purposes,” Gosse said. “If either party receives any kind of (financial) benefit from use of the drone, it is considered a commercial transaction. And such usage requires us to apply for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada, before we can use the drone.”

The Telegram initiated the SFOC application process about four months ago, in anticipation of its first test flight.

“It has taken that long to get the certificate pared down to the details that Transport Canada requires to give them the confidence that we can operate safely,” Gosse said. “The next application will take much less time because we will essentially be following the same template." 

The application was approved and The Telegram did proceed with a test shoot above the Battery, along St. John’s Harbour. Gosse said that excerpts of that footage will be posted on Saturday, May 3, at The Telegram’s site.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the news gathering potential of drone technology, the sky is the limit. Drones can be used to provide high angle views on all manner of breaking news events, from accidents to fires to environmental incidents, and more. They can also provide eye-popping new views on everyday scenes, from construction sites to garbage dumps, and enable us to see the natural environment in surprising new ways (imagine, for example, flying over Cape Spear as massive waves break directly below).

The problem is, current regulations effectively block the use of drones in spot news coverage. Even a streamlined application process will not allow photo-journalists to capture footage of that breaking story – not while it’s news, anyway. To resolve this, Gosse is hoping to progress their relationship with the federal regulator to the point that they can deploy the drone for bigger stories.

“If you have a breaking story, you can’t just run down there and launch it. At the moment, we can’t use it for a breaking news story. But what we hope is that in the short term, if we can run five or 10 of these little flights without any kind of incident, that Transport Canada will eventually give us a kind of open-ended certificate …”

Part of the problem is that Transport Canada is regulating a technology that wasn’t in broad use when the applicable aviation regulations were written. And they don’t apply to recreational flyers; any of us can purchase a drone privately and fly it whenever we like, as long as the footage is not sold or used commercially.

“We would like to see the restrictions loosened up a bit, though at the same time we understand why Transport Canada wants to keep a rein on it until they can come up with new guidelines … Transport Canada doesn’t have an actual set of guidelines relating to how the media want to use drones. They are forming a standing committee to come up with rules and guidelines governing their use.”

More on that committee – and an interview with a journalism instructor who is using the drone for educational purposes – in part 2 of this series.

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