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15 Media Companies Are Testing News-Gathering Drones in Virginia

The New York Times, Associated Press, USA Today, Washington Post, and others are all training their photographers to use drones.

A handful of the country's largest media organizations, including the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and Getty Images will begin testing news-gathering drones Tuesday at a test range in Virginia.

Reporters will use the drones to take photos and video of simulated news events in a series of locations, "including remote regions and urban environments," according to the Holland & Knight law firm, which is representing the media companies involved.


"We've rented out an airstrip where older, single-propellor planes fly," Chuck Tobin, the lawyer who represents the companies, told me. "For now, it's going to be all rural, but in the next couple weeks we're hoping to do suburban simulations over unoccupied buildings.

The activities will be some of the first of their kind at Virginia Tech University, which has been designated as one of the Federal Aviation Administration's six "test sites," to test the safety of drones. So far, those test sites have been slow to do much of any real-world testing.

Besides the companies listed above, American Broadcasting Companies, Advance Publications, A.H. Belo Corporation, Capitol Broadcasting Co., E.W. Scripps Company, Fusion, Gannett (which owns USA Today and many other newspapers nationwide), Sinclair Broadcast Group, Univision, and Thomson Reuters will be involved in the testing. CNN has also been testing drones separately, and ESPN has been known to use them as well.

Tobin said that each of those organizations has sent a photographer or other representative to take part in a day-long classroom training with FAA representatives, in addition to in-the-field testing.

Drones are already used by news organizations in the field from time to time, but most have shied away from the technology while they await the Federal Aviation Administration to firm up regulations for their commercial use. Many companies (both journalistic and otherwise) fly them anyway, as the laws aren't quite clear. Others have gotten what is known as a 333 exemption from the FAA, which allows drones to be used even before the rules are finalized.

That the media wants to use drones is no secret—last year, many of these same companies filed a petition with the FAA asserting that drone journalism should be a protected First Amendment right.