May 1, 2015
(Screen shot from NBC's drone coverage of Nepal.)

(Screen shot from NBC’s drone coverage of Nepal.)

NBC News’ Miguel Almaguer used dramatic video captured by a drone in his reporting from Nepal this week.

The images soaring above the ruins of destroyed temples in Kathmandu are a demonstration of how valuable these drones can be in adding context and scale, even while they are currently banned for commercial use in the U.S. It is the third time in recent months, NBC News has used unmanned drones to report a story.

NBC included the images in NBC Nightly News and Today. It also included a version just for online. NBC also used the video to show the damage of some of Nepal’s towering historic temples.

“NBC has been interested in drones for some time so we brought the drone into Nepal and worked with local contacts there to be sure we stayed out of the way of authorities and rescue workers.” said NBC Senior Vice President Editorial Janelle Rodriguez. She said NBC owns several models of drones, some that use small built-in cameras and some that have the capacity to carry larger cameras. She said NBC engineers and photojournalists have been practicing flying drones in indoor spaces for months to be sure they can do so safely. “These are not kids in the back yard putting up a drone. They are professionals.”

Rodriguez said drones can provide views that journalists cannot get any other way. “They are different from what you would see from a helicopter shot. When you are in a helicopter you are so far up and using a long lens.” She wondered aloud how reporting from disasters like Hurricane Katrina would have been different in an era of drone photography.

NBC has used drones in international reporting a couple of times before. In February, when Niagara Falls froze solid, NBC launched a drone from the Canadian side of the falls to capture spectacular images.  In March, Miguel Almaguer again was the correspondent who used a drone in his story to show the damage of a cyclone in the islands of the tiny country of Vanuatu.  “Miguel is a person we deploy on big natural disaster stories,” Rodriguez said, “So drones are a news gathering and photographic tool that suits his work well.”

CNN is also increasing its use of drone video, including this drone-captured video from Nepal. CNN used a few slow-moving drone shots into a haunting online video essay.

Journalists are not the only ones using drones in Nepal. The BBC says relief groups including Global Medic are using drones to find people who need help.  Global Medic says it has three drones in Nepal and plans to deploy more soon. The drones also help the groups to map what roads are open and closed.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not allow the commercial use of drones in the United States. The FAA is working with networks and other groups to draft a list of protocols that will eventually lead to a licensing system for drone use by journalists. In the meantime, the FAA will consider special requests to give individual approval for their commercial use. Rodriguez said, NBC News is currently working to get permission for the use of a drone on a domestic project that is in the works. The FAA’s website says to date, it has granted 246 permissions (petitions) for commercial drone use. You can read the petitions that have been approved so far. While some are for TV and movie production, many others are for surveyors, monitor crop damage, survey mining operations, real estate marketers and to monitor landslides and flooding.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said NBC was in negotiations with the FAA for permission for a domestic drone project. NBC clarified that they are not talking directly with the FAA.

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