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Fox21 News scores first commercial news drone permit in the state 

click to enlarge FOX21 News started using a quadcopter drone at news scenes last month. - COURTESY FOX21 NEWS
  • Courtesy Fox21 News
  • FOX21 News started using a quadcopter drone at news scenes last month.

How many times have you thrust your head out the car window to see what's holding up traffic, or rubbernecked at some kind of incident that's drawing a crowd?

Well, if you can wait until you get home, you now may be able to see a bird's-eye view of the scene on FOX21, which has the first Federal Aviation Administration-sanctioned news drone in Colorado.

The $8,000 quadcopter, dubbed SKYFOX21, isn't likely to remain unique for long. Drone technology is, well, soaring across the globe, and as of Dec. 4 the FAA had granted 74 permits, or certificates of waiver or authorization, for public entities — among them the Mesa County Sheriff's Office in Grand Junction and the University of Colorado — and 2,518 petitions for commercial drones, like SKYFOX21.

"You can get a unique perspective of a scene you cannot get from being on the ground," FOX21 news director Joe Cole says.

Drones, which range in cost from $50 to thousands of dollars, are widely available to hobbyists. The FAA "checklist" for hobby drones requires they fly below 400 feet; within a visual line of sight; never over groups of people, stadiums and sports events; and never within five miles of an airport without contacting air traffic control. They're also supposed to steer clear of emergency scenes and other aircraft.

Many of those rules also pertain to commercial craft, like the one owned by FOX21 (which, by way of disclosure, is an Indy news partner). The FAA announced its waiver program for unmanned aircraft systems earlier this year, and FOX21's Virginia-based parent company seized the opportunity, Cole says.

"Media General sent out a message to all its stations saying, 'Who wants to be pioneers in this?'" Cole says. "I said, 'Put us down."

Roughly a dozen of Media General's 71 stations across the country are participating, he says.

Under its commercial drone program, the FAA requires licensed pilots to operate drones. FOX21's pilot is Josh Kimmel, who works when called upon. Kimmel can launch the drone, which resembles bicycle handlebars, from anywhere near a filming site, and the station always gets permission, Cole says. Before launch, pilots must file flight plans with the FAA, and drones must obtain tail numbers, just like all other aircraft. Pilots also must be assisted by a visual "spotter," a role fulfilled by FOX21 staff, Cole says. No night flights are allowed.

While the FAA imposes a 400-foot ceiling, Media General limits flights to 200 feet, Cole says. "If we fly over somebody, we need to have their permission," he notes, and that goes for people's homes as well. In addition, he adds, the drone won't hover over city parks, which is barred by the city. Its use at crime scenes and other breaking news events will depend on whether authorities grant permission.

SKYFOX21, a DJI Inspire 1 model, provides 360-degree views and can fly for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, the duration of its battery. It's capable of recording video and also broadcasting live, and Cole says it can provide critical information to the public, such as during traffic snarls and wildland fires.

As of last week, SKYFOX21 had flown on assignment twice — at a Nov. 24 fire in Yoder that triggered evacuations, and at the procession for the Dec. 4 funeral for Garrett Swasey, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs police officer killed by the shooter at Planned Parenthood on Nov. 27.

The drone's fire coverage was approved by on-scene firefighters, Cole says, and captured a lot of attention from the station's competitors.

"All the other stations were there, and our photographer said everyone wants one of these," he says.

But Cole is aware that not every civilian may be so enthusiastic. "We're obviously very careful with this. We're not randomly doing what we want with it," he says. "The first time we put it on Facebook that we had a drone, we had comments like, 'You're gonna get that thing shot down.'"

FOX21's drone wasn't used during the shooting standoff at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic on Nov. 27, Cole says, due to wind and cold temperatures, which can cause the battery to drain prematurely, resulting in the drone dropping from the sky. So FOX21 didn't even ask for permission that day. But Cole notes the Springs Police Department is intrigued.

"I stated to the police after the fact [at the shooting] if the weather had been decent, I was willing to offer the drone to the Police Department if they wanted to use it to help them in their situation," Cole says. Public information officer Lt. Catherine Buckley "perked up," he says, and it appears the department might be game to test it for use in specific situations.

Lt. Daniel Lofgren, who works on CSPD aviation projects, says drones' potential benefits are undeniable. To name a few: searching for lost or missing persons; processing open-air crime scenes; identifying hazards and escape routes, searching open areas for armed suspects without exposing personnel to danger; assessing damage from disasters, examining explosive devices; and managing logistics and security at large events.

"The list goes on and on," Lofgren says via email.

Which is quite clear to ACLU of Colorado's public policy director, Denise Maes, who says the chief concern with drones should be their use by police.

"The ACLU strongly supports that law enforcement's use of drones needs to be reined in and guard rails need to be in place," she says via email. "Drones have the ability to invade one's privacy in a significant way."

Lofgren says CSPD has no budget for a drone now, and adds that because state and federal authorities are still developing restrictions for governmental use, acquiring UAS (unmanned aerial systems) technology at this point is premature.

The FAA plans to release its final rules on small UAS craft next spring.

The 74 public entities granted permits for drones so far include the military and other government operations, such as research labs and NASA, and universities. The University of Colorado at Boulder's Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences obtained a permit several years ago. According to its website, researchers there are developing "a smart, small unmanned aircraft system that can plan its own flight path to maximize endurance and minimize power-usage."

As for law enforcement, only about a dozen local police agencies have become certified so far. Among those is Mesa County Sheriff's Office, the only one in Colorado with a drone, says Ben Miller, who ran the program until recently when he joined Draganfly Innovations, a drone maker.

Mesa's program began in 2008, and four years later the drone flew a mission for homicide investigators in remote Hinsdale County. The case involved the high-profile case of the suspicious death of Leslie Mueller, whose husband, Fred, a Texas businessman, was tried twice for her murder. Both times the jury deadlocked, and prosecutors didn't try him a third time.

"They wanted to take the jury to the crime scene," Miller says, "but it was above a mountainous road, and it was a significant feat to get there. We went up and flew around the area and took some fantastic aerial video, so the jury was able to view the scene."

Drones, Miller says, are a bargain compared to other aviation assets. Mesa's program costs about $25 per hour of flight time, while a traditional police helicopter can run from $500 to $1,000 per hour.

"Anytime we can break the bonds of the earth," says Miller, who remains a sheriff's drone program volunteer, "it's beneficial for a lot of stuff."

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