Small camera drone carries big video punch

Telegram hopes to use quadcopter to capture breaking news video for website

Published on May 3, 2014

What newspaper wouldn’t want a helicopter to get aerial shots of breaking or ongoing news events for its print and online editions?

Imagine the added value to readers of high-angle videos posted to a newspaper’s website.

At The Telegram, while a real helicopter is probably not in the budget, the newsroom has purchased a new quadcopter to eventually — if the appropriate permits are granted — cover events from the air.

The quadcopter is hardly intimidating. It is only about 18 inches square in size, and just over five inches high. It has a dedicated GoPro camera mount on its underside, and the craft and camera combo weigh less than 27 ounces.

The video captured up to its height limit of 150 feet, however, can be amazing.

The first video — which can be seen on The Telegram’s website — is of the Battery area of St. John’s harbour. The video was captured with Telegram photographer Keith Gosse at the controls — well, at the controls of the remote-control device way down on the land below.

Gosse is heading up the quadcopter project. He noted that when someone buys a quadcopter as a toy, they can fly it almost anywhere at any time. For a news organization, or anyone else who plans to use such an aircraft for commercial purposes, however, it becomes a whole new ball game … or whole new flight plan.

He said Transport Canada requires a special certificate to operate camera drones commercially. Even footage shot by a hobby pilot can’t be used in a media context, because it automatically falls into federal commercial guidelines.

“We had to make initial contact with Transport Canada to ask them, basically, what we would be required to do to fly this helicopter for The Telegram,” Gosse said.

“This little drone operates under the same UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) rules as the Predator drones that the Canadian Forces use. That’s because Transport Canada doesn’t have a specific set of guidelines for camera drones.

“So, we basically had to create a special flight operations certificate application, specific to The Telegram and this quadcopter. And the whole process — from first application, and from several phone calls and emails back and forth to clarify issues and get more direction on what it would take to get approval — took 2 1/2 months.”

New technology

Telegram managing editor Steve Bartlett gave the project its wings … blades … and the go ahead.

"With technology offering so many new and cool things, a drone seemed like a fun thing to try — and what newsroom hasn't dreamt of having a helicopter,” Bartlett said.

"I like the ability of being able to show people places and perspectives they've never seen. So many creative and interesting drone assignments have been floated around the newsroom since we bought it. It's pretty exciting for us, and hopefully, our online readers will agree.

"We're playing by the rules and will be taking great responsibility when using this. We've gotten all the necessary approvals — and, as Keith will tell you, there are many — and we will do so with each mission."

Gosse said it takes a minimum of two people to use the craft — one as the pilot who controls the aircraft and one as a safety observer. The observer would watch for any potential hazards — birds, pedestrians walking into the flight zone — and keep the pilot informed.

“The first video is basically a test flight over an area everyone is familiar with and an area we thought would be easy to shoot from a quadcopter,” Gosse said. “The main purpose of this flight was to test out the capabilities of the quadcopter and to determine if we needed any additional equipment or training to get a video that would be usable and entertaining to readers and people browsing the web.”

In the long term, Gosse says The Telegram hopes to have a more open-ended certificate agreement with Transport Canada that will allow the newsroom to deploy the quadcopter on shorter notice and possibly on breaking news stories.

“We don’t know if that’s going to be possible because Transport Canada’s current restrictions don’t allow us to fly it over bystanders, but we do have a certain amount of latitude to fly it over properties with permission from agencies or property owners,” Gosse said. “We hope it will be something we can utilize to enhance our news coverage.”

gwhiffen@thetelegram.com