Minutes after a tornado barreled across the state Sunday, a Little Rock television station broadcast aerial footage of smashed recreational vehicles, homes and other storm debris in Mayflower as emergency workers searched for survivors.
The footage aired by KATV, Channel 7, on Sunday was one of the first glimpses of the scope of damage the storm left in its wake and was captured with a device that is relatively new to the journalism industry: an unmanned aerial vehicle, most commonly referred to as a drone.
With sunlight fading and not enough time to get a helicopter to the scene, one of KATV’s photojournalists, Brian Emfinger, used a small, remote-controlled drone to capture overhead video of the wreckage near Interstate 40.
“It’s always in the back of my head, ‘How could I use the drone to get shots that other people don’t have?’” said Emfinger, who had been chasing the storm from the moment it touched down. “The thing about the aerial is, for people who have been impacted, it’s one thing to have ground shots but it really gives a sense of perspective about how bad it is. And if people know how bad it is, people can help.”
However, regulations for the devices are still murky, even though drones are expected to become a standard tool for journalists.
The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits the commercial use of the devices, including for reporting, according to the agency’s website. But some photographers who fly small drones say a recent court case voids the federal regulators’ authority over unmanned aircraft.
Asked Monday about KATV’s use of a drone for its coverage of the tornado, FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said, “We are looking into it.”
FAA rules prohibit the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Federal rules currently say that civilian users can fly unmanned aircraft only if they have the proper certification and the craft have airworthiness certificates. However, flying drones for recreational reasons does not require federal approval, according to the agency’s website.
The FAA is now revising its rules for commercial use of unmanned aircraft, but the regulations aren’t expected until 2015. Current rules limit the unmanned aerial vehicles for approved government use and by hobbyists if they keep them at altitudes below 400 feet.
Matt Waite, a professor who leads the Drone Journalism Lab for the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that for now, the FAA insists that journalists cannot use drones for their reporting.
“We don’t have really clear rules of the road right now for the use of drones for journalists or anyone, really,” Waite said. “There are a tremendous number of questions that are floating around out there that have significant ramifications of how journalists will use these, that we do not have solid answers for.”
The Drone Journalism Lab pays students to work with small drones that are flown inside. He said the lab is trying to get a certificate of authorization so the devices can be flown outside and the work can be “published openly.” Waite was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette during the late 1990s.
“The FAA has this policy that says no one can use them outside [of government or hobbyists], but they do not have enough people to enforce these rules,” Waite said. “The FAA is in this impossible position, where their answer is no, but the technology has become so easy and so inexpensive that it’s impossible to ignore the possibility of these devices.”
Several news organizations, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, used the KATV footage on their own websites after it was distributed by The Associated Press.
In March, Raphael Pirker, who had been fined $10,000 by the FAA for using an unmanned aircraft to shoot a promotional video, had the case against him dismissed by an administrative law judge, Bloomberg News reported. The judge said the FAA didn’t have authority over drones when it levied the fine. The judge’s ruling was stayed while the FAA appeals the decision.
Because of that decision, Emfinger said he’s not worried about using a drone to shoot footage for KATV before the FAA revises its regulations. The drone belongs to him and not the station.
“Most people when they think of a drone, they don’t picture what I have,” he said. “They picture something big and scary. I’m not even sure when they do regulations that what I have will even be included in them.”
Emfinger’s white drone,which can carry a small video camera, is about a foot and a half wide with propellers that are about 8 inches long, he said.
It has been used by KATV before to cover a fire at the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs earlier this year, said Nick Gentry, news director for the television station.
“Brian went out to use it last night because we knew we needed some pictures to show the damage,” Gentry said. “It gave great perspective of how bad the damage was in Mayflower.”
Other Arkansas television stations are also using unmanned aircraft to cover the aftermath of the tornado.
Tim Trieschmann, owner of The Shot Above, a company that specializes in aerial photography in Little Rock, also used a drone to provide aerial footage for KLRT, Channel 16, on Monday.
“The quality and the cost is why it’s popular with TV stations,” Trieschmann said. “It’s such a very promising industry right now.”
Waite said drones will become useful tools for journalists once flight regulations are in place because they are less expensive than helicopters and help show the extent of damage during a natural disaster.
“From a straight economic perspective, a drone makes a ton of sense,” he said.