By technical editor Matt Allard:
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is so concerned about people flying drones over the upcoming Superbowl that they have released a video featuring the slogan “Don’t spoil the game, leave your drone at home.” The online campaign even has the Twitter hashtag #NoDroneZone.
According to the FAA it is prohibited to fly unauthorized aircraft, such as a drone, over or near any NFL games, not just Sunday’s championship game. The same restriction also applies to Major League Baseball games, and any college sporting event taking place in a stadium that seats at least 30,000 fans, as well as some Nascar events. Anyone caught breaking these rules could be detained by law enforcement and wind up facing jail time or a fine.
Last year an unmanned aircraft flew into Bank of America Stadium during a preseason game between the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs. The operator of the drone was questioned by police but subsequently released.
The use of drones at major news events in a safe and legal way is something that has troubled many news organisations – from long before the latest FAA regulations were introduced. Two years ago, at NAB, Newsshooter editor Dan Chung and I discussed the possibility of building a drone that could be deployed and used safely as well as providing a live picture and power through a tethered cable. We talked in over with some manufacturers and experts but ultimately didn’t take it forward.
Clearly we weren’t the only ones thinking about this kind of thing as start-up Fotokite have come up with a similar concept. They have developed a tethered drone system that provides what they claim is a safer, easier way to get aerial shots. There is a visible, load-bearing physical tether that clearly signals the operator’s location to anyone in the vicinity – be they bystanders or property owners. The concept is that the operator is in complete control of the device at all times (although I guess that would depend on the competency of the operator). The have had interest from news organisations and in particular the BBC.
Because the Fotokite is tethered and the power is supplied from the ground it can stay operational for hours, unlike traditional drone systems. For news and event coverage this is certainly a big selling point. The ability to deploy a small drone quickly using a readily available GoPro camera and maintain a level of control over it is crucial for news organisations. The Fotokite doesn’t require detailed knowledge of drone flying and would be far easier to use and control for someone with limited experience than say a DJI Phantom or Inspire 1.
As far as the regulations go, Fotokite claim that “the Fotokite shares fundamental attributes with conventional kites and is thus welcomed by safety experts as a safe, more reliable way to access aerial perspectives, especially near crowds.” What the FAA and other international airspace regulators think may of course be quite different.
While it is definitely safer to have a tethered drone I still do see some potential problems.
If the tether cable gets caught on any object and snaps or breaks the drone will just fall out of the sky as its only source of power comes through the tether connection (Edit: Fotokite tell us that there is an onboard battery that can take over in the event of power from the tether being cut off). There may be a possibility of the tether catching or tangling around objects or people – exactly like a regular kite.
I do think the Fotokite has a lot of potential for news, documentary and event shooters. The fact that the BBC has been testing it shows that mainstream news organisations are very serious about looking into safer ways of capturing unique aerial perspectives.