August 19, 2016

For months, anticipation has been building about the prospect of journalists sending drones skyward to cover the news.

At long last, after many months and piles of red tape, the Federal Aviation Administration in June released guidelines that will allow journalists without pilot licenses to operate drones after passing a test. Those guidelines go into effect later this month, and it’s possible the United States could see a sudden glut of drone-enabled photojournalists.

But if that happens, CNN will have an edge on the competition.

On Thursday, the broadcaster announced the debut of CNN AIR, a new division dedicated to aerial imagery and reporting. The group, which includes two full-time drone operators and a fleet of about a dozen drones of various sizes, is among the first of its kind for a major U.S. broadcaster and aims to pioneer the use of unmanned aircraft for newsgathering.

Although CNN AIR just got off the ground, the division has been about 16 months in the making, said Greg Agvent, senior director of news operations for the broadcaster. The notion began when Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and a plane enthusiast, noticed the advances being made in drone technology and alerted his colleagues.

Soon, CNN was partnering with Georgia Tech to figure out how drones could best be used for newsgathering. The FAA named CNN a “pathfinder” and gave the network permission to tinker with the drones for commercial purposes. Safety was an early priority.

“We realized that CNN was in aviation all of a sudden,” Agvent said. “We were playing in the national airspace. It’s the safest airspace in the world, and it’s that way for a reason. It’s that way because the FAA made it so.”

Since then, CNN has undertaken several assignments with its drones to figure out what they’re best used for, Agvent said. Early outings saw drones soaring above lead-afflicted homes in Flint, Michigan and buzzing over Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Along the way, Agvent says, CNN’s learned that drones are particularly good for three things:

  • Context and understanding

    Agvent cited Gupta’s standup in Flint as an example of using drones to impart context from above.

    “The whole gist of the standup was, ‘I’m in the house with the highest lead levels, but you have to understand — there’s 10,000 homes afflicted by this tainted water,'” Agvent said. “So we used the drone, and the drone was just 10 feet in front of him. And it moved as he moved — outside the door of that individual home, and then it rose above as he went through the rest of his standup to reveal that it’s not just one house.”

  • Enhancing production value

    Drone shots of the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, scenes from Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland added to the broadcast quality of those events, Agvent said.

    “The Reagan Library is a particularly unique setting,” Agvent said. “It’s a beautiful building with beautiful grounds in the middle of a desert. We were able to use a drone to capture shots of both the desert and rising up to reveal the library. We were able to get shots inside the famous hanger area where Air Force One is.”

  • Improving documentary storytelling

    CNN AIR isn’t limited to CNN’s core news report. The division’s pilots will be creating content for Great Big Story, its ambitious video storytelling initiative, and other projects across Turner and Time-Warner. Early examples have included taking viewers along on a rock climbing outing and nearby a herd of bison, Agvent said.

    “We were able to show perspective, breadth and scope,” he said. “We’re able to use the drone to capture things that you simply cannot capture from a helicopter, which would create that much more noise and cost you that much more money.”

So far, Agvent says, CNN AIR’s drone fleet is comprised mostly of copters, but he hopes to add a fixed-wing aircraft to increase the time pilots can fly without landing. Drone operators will likely fly an average of 10 assignments per month (about two or three times per week), operating everything from tethered drones to free-flight copters to fixed-wing aircraft.

CNN is aware that, if used improperly, the drones could spark a furor over abuse of privacy or other breaches of journalistic ethics, Agvent said. That’s why, if producers want to talk through an unusual application for a drone, they can do the same thing they would if they had questions about any other story: Talk to CNN’s standards or legal departments.

Ultimately, having one more type of camera to deploy isn’t going to change CNN’s fundamental DNA, Agvent said.

“CNN’s been around for 35 years,” he said. “We’ve got a fairly robust system to handle ethical and privacy questions on a daily basis, regardless of what the technology we’re using is. This is another tool in our toolbox.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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