CNN'S UAS pathfinder mission

Media giant CNN’s unprecedented efforts will bring news gathering UAVs into the national airspace. Why CNN chose to pursue drone footage and what it means for the rest of us.
By Luke Geiver | September 18, 2015

CNN’s efforts to become the first major news gatherer to fully implement drones into day-to-day operations is best understood by watching a two-minute video shot via drone in the aftermath of a major Nepal earthquake. The video does not include a reporter on the scene talking of the wreckage. There is no voiceover, only a soft engulfing melody and the raw two minutes and 18 seconds worth of drone video taken overhead: a duo of aid workers dressed in blue, scraping away debris from a building in an obvious search for something important; a human assembly line passing boulders from one pair of tired hands to another, a landslide of grey rubble, steel roof panels and unearthed dirt piled on top of everything. The only color in the aerial shot is the blue overalls, orange shirt and dusty pants of the people standing on the rubble as if something in the scene is entirely wrong.

“The footage we shot in the aftermath of Nepal was transfixing,” says Greg Agvent, senior director, news operations for CNN. “It didn’t leave you.”

For Agvent, the power of that Nepal footage, along with other CNN unmanned aircraft vehicle work in places like Selma, Alabama, and Oklahoma City, has lasting appeal. Drone footage from each location provided unique context to a story or made the imagery more compelling, Agvent says. The use of UAV-based footage has clearly made a positive dent in the content creation strategies of Agvent and others at CNN.

Over the past two years, a team from CNN, including Agvent, has been in the midst of a historic effort to usher in a new era of news gathering enhanced by UAV captured footage like that from Nepal and Selma. To turn drone imagery from a unique storytelling option utilized sparingly into an everyday tool linked to day-to-day breaking news, the CNN team has had to become well-versed in the legal lingo of the national airspace. The team has had to learn the science of payloads. Most importantly it's had to learn about the complexities of flying above a crowd. The team has immersed itself in the UAS industry by reaching out and working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the Association for Unmanned Vehicles System International, Georgia Tech University and several others ranging from drone manufacturers to service companies. Although CNN’s efforts are both unprecedented and unfinished, the team’s current perspectives on UAS and work with the FAA could one day be recognized as a crucial part of how the FAA brought UAVs safely into the national airspace and positively altered our news viewing experience.

Becoming A Pathfinder
During the UAS industry’s largest yearly gathering in May, David Vigilante, senior vice president, legal for CNN, took part in an FAA-led press conference. The press event was standing-room only. For an industry’s main trade event, the press conference buzz made the room appear to be the center of the country’s collective attention. Vigilante and representatives from two other entities were being formally recognized for their commitment to the FAA as UAS Pathfinders, a term created by the FAA to denote the three chosen entities’ roles in providing crucial, necessary data on various elements of UAS to the FAA. In that one announcement, the FAA ushered in a new era of UAS integration research for its team and a historically unique collaboration with a news giant that could have chosen to go at its UAV integration efforts alone.

“This started with a desire to explore this [UAS] space and see what is possible,” Vigilante says. Before CNN was announced as a UAS Pathfinder, Vigilante and his Washington D.C. bureau chief asked for a meeting with the FAA to understand what may be possible for news gatherers such as CNN and the potential use of drones. CNN wanted to know how it could be helpful, Vigilante says, and the FAA wanted more data, specifically in visual line of sight operations above people, something the CNN team was focused on.

Paul Ferguson, supervising editor of international newsgathering at CNN, says he has helped his team arrange and fly UAV missions in more than 20 countries. But, experience gleaned outside the U.S. has not entirely translated to UAS operations in the U.S. “In many ways, even though we have flown so many missions outside of the U.S., a lot of the big questions have yet to be answered,” he says.

To help its team and the FAA understand how drone-based news gathering can work in the national airspace, the CNN team has begun collaborating with the Georgia Tech Research Institute and other industry players to find what Vigilante and Agvent have both called the Holy Grail: flying above people safely.

To date, CNN has flown missions in the U.S., but only for produced pieces that allow for planning and setup. None of its flights have been above crowds.

After starting with a knowledge base of UAVs that Ferguson admits was “zero,” the team has become well-versed in platform options, total systems and aerospace regulations.

“Early on, when we started, I think the initial thought was that we could get a consumer drone and we could create imagery that was first rate,” Agvent says. “As we became more educated and more fluent in UAS, we came to the determination that to meet our goals and to mitigate flights over people then we couldn’t rely on small consumer drones.”

The team now embraces a mantra offered by Agvent. “I have a favorite saying,” he says, “different horses for different courses. There are different craft that will work for certain situations.”

For flying above crowds, the team is looking at octocopter options that have safety redundancy built into the rotors. During live news events that can be covered from a stationary position, Agvent is enthusiastic about tethered drones that feature a longer endurance offering. “That has real potential for us. You put that in the hands of a producer or reporter and that can change the way we shoot,” he says.

In the next year, the CNN team will be working more with GTRI and the FAA on its pathfinder goals, Vigilante says. That work will also include research activities with some Georgia-based fire departments and the New York City Fire Department, along with a look at commercial platform offerings.

Vigilante, a lawyer by trade, says the FAA’s challenge with integrating UAS into the NAS will not be solved by lawyers. “It will be solved by engineers and operators,” he says.

Ferguson is focused on figuring out how emergency responders and government agencies can successfully fly UAVs in the same airspace as news outlets simultaneously. To illustrate his reason for focus, Ferguson refers to the situation typical for a homicide. Yellow-tape is set around a perimeter of a scene and the only way to move past the tape is to be an emergency or law enforcement employee, or show a press pass. “They will let me in with a press pass because there is a confidence and trust between us. It’s a privilege and they will take it away if we misuse it,” he says. “Ultimately, we are looking for a press pass in the sky.”

Using the Sky Press Pass
Both Agvent and Ferguson can recite specific stories that utilize drone-captured imagery as if those stories were childhood moments of importance. And, very few CNN producers or field reporters have shown hesitancy in embracing the use of UAVs for newsgathering. “Like anything new,” Ferguson says, “there are challenges and what is obvious to one person may not be obvious to others.”

Ferguson has already shown his beliefs in UAV use. Earlier this year he brought on the first full-time UAV pilot at CNN to capture imagery. Video editors are still learning how to incorporate certain footage, however. “The language of television is wide-shot, medium-shot, close-up shot. That is how it works with television and movies,” he says. “Now we have a super-wide shot that is moving.”

Agvent points to a New Orleans documentary 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, hosted by Anderson Cooper, as a prime example of how CNN has already learned how to utilize drones for production oriented pieces. Using the services of Helivideo, Cooper’s team shot close-ups using drones on the New Orleans levies that broke during Katrina. In Oklahoma City, the team also used UAVs to shoot a special on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing event. And, in Selma, CNN used a drone to capture the bridge at the center of a famous civil rights event. “The footage we shot on an early morning in March was extremely compelling,” Agvent says of the Selma shoot. “It was visually stunning, very unique and it helped us to tell the story of the bridge.”

While Vigilante is happy with the support from the UAS and newsgathering industry to date, he is quick to point out that the CNN story isn’t just about the Atlanta team. “At the end of the day, this is about bringing a whole new business into existence that is a lot bigger than CNN,” he says. Ferguson agrees.

“This is not about CNN and ego and being first. What we are trying to do is build and ecosystem for the whole media industry,” Ferguson says.

Since the FAA started its Pathfinder program, no other major media entity has been granted the same status of CNN. When the company performs test flights above people, it will be the first media entity to do so. “Ultimately the flights are the easy part,” Agvent says. It is the integration of UAVs into the NAS and into day-to-day operations that is the hard part, he adds. Agvent is proud of the early efforts of Vigilante to meet with the FAA and of Ferguson’s focus on working with emergency responders to effectively share the airspace. None of the UAS CNN pathfinder team, however, voiced their hopes that their efforts would be just about CNN or their individual bios. “What is important to us is that we have done it the right way,” Agvent says. After spending nearly 20 years as a field producer chasing and creating important and compelling stories, it is clear that Agvents-and CNN's-efforts to show the way of the drone to the FAA and other media outlet competitors has flipped the camera around and the storytellers have become the story. For the UAS industry, that is good news.

Author: Luke Geiver
Editor, UAS Magazine