Drone Advice chats with Peter Robinson, Chief Remote Pilot at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), about how drones are being integrated into journalism at the ABC. Peter has been working for the ABC’s News Operations team, setting up their drone capabilities. He has been instrumental in building a skilled team across the country and for the ABC’s international bureaux. The team is now applying to CASA for a Remote Operators Certificate on behalf of the ABC, with Peter as the Chief Remote Pilot.

DroneAdvice: How long have you been flying drones for and what got you started?

Peter: I was looking for a change and picked up an attachment to our News Operations team in mid-2016. Among the priorities was the then-forthcoming changes to the rules allowing sub-2kg commercial operations. So I jumped in – I learned to fly one (a toy initially), read everything I could get my hands on and started tapping up industry people to get started on building our knowledge and our network. The further down the rabbit hole I went and the more I flew, the more I got into it. Basically, I’ve well and truly caught the bug.

Sculpture by the Sea
Sculpture by the Sea, from above

The ABC had already looked at expanding our drone capabilities – Foreign Correspondent’s Mark Corcoran had done a huge amount of work and begun some initial training – so I didn’t have to start cold. Any ABC drone ambitions were canned after the budget cuts that followed the change of Government. However, once the rules changed (in September 2016) drones became a much more accessible proposition; drone technology had moved on considerably and had become cheaper, plus the then-new CASR Part 101 provided a clear framework we could operate in. We started building up our drone operations and it’s gone from there.

DroneAdvice: What type of models are you and others at the ABC flying? Any custom builds?

Peter: No custom builds – that’s a little ambitious for us at this stage. We use off-the-shelf DJI drones and have a range of Phantom 4’s, Mavics, Mavic 2’s, a Spark and a Ryze Tello. I should say that we’re not necessarily wedded to DJI products, it’s just that at the moment on the basis of usability and price they’re hard to walk past. There are a few ABC people who build their own racing drones; others fly Parrot drones or DJI knock-offs, and whenever a new drone appears we always take a look.

DroneAdvice: It must be great having relatively inexpensive machines (all things considered) as eyes-in-the-sky to help craft news stories. What are some of the more memorable locations you’ve filmed at and stories you’ve been able to produce with the help of drones?

Peter: Yes – that’s a key reason our drone operations have taken root. Memorable pictures? Too many to mention… personally, I’ve enjoyed shooting for some of our digital projects (a Curious Sydney piece on the history of ocean pools and a Radio National one about the Bahai faith spring to mind).

Bondi Ocean Pool
Bondi Ocean Pool, and Icebergs above

Other high points for the ABC are things like:

  • Foreign Correspondent’s Greenland climate change programme which featured some breathtaking pictures;
  • the 4 Corners programme on alleged water theft in New South Wales – a great example of high impact journalism that can be done with drones. We were able to get shots that were integral to our investigation but would have been prohibitively expensive to do with a chopper;
  • the drought stories – these made huge use of drone footage for both TV and Digital platforms; and
  • using them to great effect in investigating illegal land clearances and even for taking a peek at an alleged bikie’s ill-gotten gains.

Honourable mentions should go to early adopters Landline and Back Roads who have done some fantastic work with drones and shown the way we can use them to lift our shows (no pun intended).

Greenland
Greenland
An excerpt from ABC’s 4 Corners programme on the alleged water theft in New South Wales
DroneAdvice: Are there any specific challenges to using drones in the news industry?

Peter: The main challenge for us is to find ways of getting what we want and staying within the rules… it can’t always be done. And while we’re waiting on our ReOC (Remote Operators Certificate) application to CASA, we do still go to 3rd parties to help with shoots that need extra permissions, but we are doing the overwhelming majority of jobs in-house these days. Other challenges I don’t think are specific to news – the public can be (sometimes rightfully) wary of drones for example.

DroneAdvice: Do you have any tips for freelance or employed journalists who might be looking to add a drone to their kit – or for those who are using them already and might want to implement them more effectively in their day-to-day work?

Peter: Get plenty of practice before you start thinking about doing it for work. Use the CASA ‘Can I Fly There?’ app, know the rules off by heart, and make sure you stick to them. I’d personally recommend proper CASA-certified training to get a formal qualification (a Remote Pilot Licence – RePL in the jargon) – it provides a much broader grounding, plus the rules on drone operations will only become more onerous. If you’re freelance, you’ll need public liability insurance too… either check if your existing cover can be extended to cover drone work (some do – some don’t) or shop around as there are plenty of providers these days.

Greenland
Greenland

The way the law is structured, it’s all about personal responsibility – you’re generally legally liable for whatever happens when you’re flying, so you need to think through a job before you take off and don’t push your luck. The other thing is keeping it simple and smooth – I reckon a large proportion of drone pictures we use are simple crane shots to give a sense of place.

* Peter has previously been part of the ABC’s National Business Team and has worked on other programmes including stints as Supervising Producer at 7.30 and as Newsgathering Editor for News.

Photos courtesy of the ABC. The Greenland photos (including feature photo) are screenshots from Matt Davis’s Walkley award-winning footage from the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent Greenland climate change programme.