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Drones becoming an integral part of newsgathering, require responsibility

News 3 will now be implementing drones

MADISON, Wis. -  A diverse group of professionals and amateurs is now harnessing the power of drones to deliver sky-high photography. One of the more recent applications for drones is newsgathering.

The Federal Aviation Administration sets the rules for the use of drones, or unmanned aircraft. The regulations set two distinct categories for drones: hobbyist use and commercial use.

Hobbyists have less strict guidelines. They're required to notify airports if they are less than 5 miles away, must follow community guidelines, can't fly a drone over 55 lbs. and must always fly within the line of sight.

Commercial users, additionally, have to get a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate, must be 16 years old and can't fly at night, among other things.

Both FAA rules and Academy of Model Aeronautics guidelines require commercial users and hobbyists to not fly directly over people.

Charlie Toms -- who flies drones both for fun, on his own time, and for a living with Edge Consulting Engineers out of Prairie du Sac -- said he makes every effort to be safe no matter what purpose he's flying for.

"Both on the hobbyist side and the commercial side, I have sort of a checklist," Toms said.

During a demonstration at the Madison Area Radio Control Society, or MARCS, field, east of Cottage Grove, Toms went through a long checklist to ensure his drone was in working order and safe to use. 

He said while other drone operators may not be as meticulous, he wants to ensure he has made every effort to operate his drones in a safe manner. 

"So what happens, if there is an incident and something happens, I want to show that I did everything I could to be safe," Toms said. "It's incredibly frustrating when you see it on the front page of the paper or something that someone is using an aircraft illegally, or causing a nuisance or causing a problem. It just gives us all a bad name."

Toms said he uses a spotter while flying his drones, even though ons is no longer required, to ensure he doesn't fly over people.

"They can be sure that people are clear from the area," he said. "They can talk to the pilot and be like, 'There's somebody walking his dog down the street. Leave the area till they go past.'"

Here at News 3, we officially debuted SKY3 on Monday. 

Since the FAA defines newsgathering as a commercial use, our pilots have taken the FAA-mandated safety courses and adhere to all rules regulating commercial drone use.

Katy Culver, director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Journalism Ethics, has done research for about five years on drone use in newsgathering.  She said the use of drones in news has exploded since she first started.

"When I started, people would look at me like, 'What?'" she said. "Now, everyone seems to know why drones might be useful in journalism."

Culver said in her research, she surveyed the public in focus groups about their perceptions of drone use in news. She said while the public has safety and privacy concerns about drone use, the public does 

"What they've said is they want to have an important reason the drone is being flown for news," she said. "Most people don't want something just because it's interesting, they want it to serve a purpose."

Culver said drone use after Hurricane Harvey was a perfect example of how unmanned aircraft can be used responsibly to add to a news story.

"Now is exactly when people are going to want to see it. Day 2, Day 3, you really got a sense of the magnitude of that flooding," Culver said. "That's where drones can provide a real bonus."

Culver said news organizations should be transparent and let audiences know whenever video is obtained through a drone. Here at News 3, you'll always see the "SKY3" logo in the top left of your screen when a drone was used.

Toms said those interested in learning how to fly drones should join a club such as MARCS.

"You know you're flying in a safe place and getting help from people who have experience," Toms said.

To find a local club, visit the Academy of Model Aeronautics website.


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