In late January, a series of CNN correspondent Ed Lavandera stories for Erin Burnett OutFront tackled several tales from the U.S.-Mexican border, including the viability of President Trump’s vaunted wall, how immigrants try to cross the border and what it’s like for Texans living so near to the often-chaotic line between the U.S. and Mexico.
The stories were accompanied by aerial footage of the landscape, via CNN Air (the dedicated drone reporting division the broadcaster launched last summer), offering unique imagery and reporting context to the stories.
For Greg Agvent, senior director of national news tech and CNN aerial imagery and reporting, the border series was a perfect example of the largely untapped possibilities of drones in broadcast reporting. He chatted with Next TV about how recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules have changed the ways drones are used in broadcast, the new reporting capabilities they’re opening up to news outlets and the safety and advances in technology of the drones themselves. An edited transcript follows.
NTV: Apparently, you guys have been up to some fun drone activity on the border.
Greg Agvent: I don’t know if fun is the right word (laughs), but it was pretty interesting. It was one of those really smart editorial ideas that would have been a smart editorial idea without using the aerial imagery, but the aerial imagery added to the context and understanding of the subject matter.
NTV: There have to be challenges when you’re talking about working on the border.
GA: Without a doubt.
One of the things we did, and we do this all the time, is you have to over-communicate. The commercial use of drones within journalism is new to a lot of people. It’s new to us. It’s new to the FAA. It’s new to local law enforcement. So we try to over-communicate: what we’ll be doing; how we’d do it. We work with the FAA and the folks on the ground.
NTV: How much communication was there with the Mexican government?
GA: Well, we weren’t flying in Mexican airspace.
NTV: I understand, but would there be any concern of them seeing these drones hovering right on the border?
GA: No. We were very careful. First off, the drones have geo-fencing. We didn’t feel it was necessary to use it, but if it had been say a windier day, we probably would’ve used some of the geo-fencing capabilities. And this was news to me: The fence does not sit on the border. The fence sits back from the border so that the U.S. workers can maintain the fence. So, we actually have a little leeway to fly both sides of the fence. That said, we were very careful with the planning of this. And, at least in the first location, Progreso, Texas, in the very southern tip of Texas, we had Border Patrol folks with us.
NTV: What technology did you use? You guys have been fans of Chinese drone maker DJI for a while.
GA: ‘DJI fans’ is a good way to put it; they do good work. It’s not precisely what we would like. One of our biggest efforts right now is to work with manufacturers to build very specifically a craft that fits our needs. And while the DJI Inspire is our current workhorse, I don’t know that it will be the workhorse in the future. We need more command of control. Operating over open airwaves is not really the way we want to work. A few weeks back, an FAA administrator said the FAA was poised to make an announcement about operations over people. He changed his mind at the last minute, because of security concerns. How does somebody know that it’s CNN up there, and not some malcontent? So I think there’s a lot of work to be done. And yes, I am a DJI fan, but we’re working very diligently with a number of manufacturers to try and solve the whole equation, including: What’s broadcast quality? What’s the spectrum that we’re using for command and control? What’s the spectrum we’re using for transmission of that video, from the craft down to the ground, so that I can use it in a live fashion?
NTV: FAA regulations have only been in effect for a few months. How easy or difficult has it been to conform to their requirements for broadcasters?
GA: Look, it’s like this: news happens where people are. And until we have solved the equation, and we are able to use our craft operations over people, we haven’t achieved our ultimate goal. I think it’s easy for us to do most of the work that we’re being asked to do currently. But, I would like to have used a drone to provide context to the number of people protesting in the women’s marches, or to the kind of chaos that erupted over the weekend with the travel ban stuff. I would like to be able to provide context on those things but, in a large part, I can’t.
We operate in three buckets of content. The first bucket is kind of the low-hanging fruit; it’s the production value. We’re covering the Reagan Library presidential debate, and we want some video for opens, and teasers, and all that kind of stuff. That’s easy. We’re able to get that, and create some drama, and do some really neat stuff. The next bucket is that better storytelling, which is what we’re doing with most of our content right now. It enhanced what we did on the border. But we have to be very careful about operations over people. The last bucket that we aspire to is that news and context bucket, which we desire the most, but which we have the least of currently.
NTV: The DJI drones are big and properly outfitted with 4K and pretty much all the things you need. Is there anything else you’d like to see on some of these drones, perhaps stuff that they’re still working on?
GA: Here’s one of the things we learned as part of our pathfinder program with the FAA — and our specific pathfinder was aimed at operations over people. One of the serious things you can do to protect people from a drone is to enclose the propellers. Something as simple as that, especially when you’re talking about operations over people. So, if I’m concerned — not with protecting the drone by putting a prop guard out there, but in protecting people potentially underneath it — I need it to have something that helps protect people from that rotating blade.
So, one of the things we’ve been working a great deal on is working with a couple of these manufacturers that have embraced that. That’s not a technology; that’s a simple, common-sense potential solution. Then you take enclosed drones and marry that with some other items out there like ballistic parachutes, or an audible warning in case of a problem. ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance—Broadcast], which is a transmitter that allows identification and authorization so that you know what that drone is in the sky, if it’s in the sky out in front of you, is something that is very promising. And LTE 5G, and all those traffic management-type solutions.
Technology has moved so fast, and we’re getting there. In summary, the simplest thing that can be done to protect people, and again speaking specifically in operations over people, is enclose the props. If we’re talking about just regular drones in operations not necessarily over people, then you’re really talking about building a more robust command and control, and security functions.
NTV: That had been one my thoughts: put parachutes on it.
GA: One of the companies we do business with, we own a couple of their crafts, is a company called Altus. One of the first craft that we purchased was a large Altus, and what was most intriguing to us is the fact that it had a ballistic parachute incorporated into the safety features of the craft. And so that’s something that I think has a lot of potential value.
NTV: Can you give us a hint of other CNN Air endeavors that you guys might be up to?
GA: We do have a craft that has a waiver for operations over people. It’s a small tethered craft called the Fotokite. So we’ve been talking about what’s the right opportunity to use the Fotokite, and what is the right situation, and where are we allowed to use it. We’ve been talking about trying to use it at, say, Mardi Gras where we could provide, perhaps to our Facebook Live audience, some really cool and unique pictures.
There’s a researcher at Cal Berkley who uses drones to research the giant redwoods, the sequoias, and we’ve been talking about, wouldn’t that be cool if we could use our drones to cover his drones, and really get a sense to see what it’s like to be at the tippy tops of those 300-foot giants? There’s a company called Old Rhinebeck and they fly World War I era airplanes. We’ve been talking about opportunities with them where we might be able to fly alongside to provide some unique perspective. Maybe even do some aerial virtual reality. That’s pretty cool.
We’re meeting with a company about augmented reality, about a system that we could incorporate into our drones that would allow us to put a real-time graphic overlay from a drone shot. For post-tornado or post-flooding scenarios, you have all of these pictures, but you have no sense really of where you are. This augmented reality overlay that we’re working on would provide streets, and buildings, and other things, and provide it in real-time. So you would get a sense of not only where you are in the sky, and what it looks like, but some information on precisely where we are.
NTV: Did you go to CES?
GA: I didn’t go to CES. I will go to [the NAB Show]. NAB is where a lot of the guys are more focused on the commercial users. That said, we keep an eye on the market all the time to see what’s new, and what’s out there, what works and what doesn’t work. Quite honestly, if there’s a way to sum up where we stand within the industry, it’s what we’re looking for is tools, not toys. We have to have some basic capabilities for broadcast. We have to have the basic safety requirements met. My goal is to provide value to CNN and the Turner-Time Warner companies that we fly for. Our relationship with our viewers and our users is built on trust, so I can’t do anything to betray that trust. So flying safely is a requirement. I hate to borrow a phrase, but it’s job one.
NTV: What stage would you say the use of drones has reached at this point?
GA: This is a fascinating new opportunity for broadcasters at whatever level you’re at, and there’s a lot of unknowns out there. But we’ve been working real hard, CNN has been committed to this from the getgo, and it’s really starting to pay off. We’re really making some headway on the opportunities that are before us, and on the regulations that impede us, and the technology that will enable us.