Last week at AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems show in Atlanta, FAA administrator Michael Huerta and CNN’s Director of News Operations, Gregory Agvent, announced a strategic partnership that will allow CNN to use drones as news gathering tools in populated areas. The collaboration is supposed to supply the FAA with valuable data for integrating drones into the airspace in urban and populated areas while allowing CNN to begin using drones to capture footage from the sky.
The priority of the partnership is safety, so CNN will be using the WATT-200 tethered drone developed by Florida-based Drone Aviation Corp.
A tethered drone does have its limits, but it is a solid stepping stone for the FAA to learn from. Plus, it’s much safer than a free flying drone.
“We like to think of it as a virtual pole with a camera on the end,” Drone Aviation COO Dan Erdberg told DRONELIFE.
The tether keeps the drone from accidentally flying away but it also connects the WATT directly to its power source, meaning the drone can stay airborne almost indefinitely (though Erdberg says they recommend landing the WATT at least every eight hours for routine maintenance checks). It also acts as a hardwired connection between the drone and the ground station. All the video is fed directly into a news van’s computer; there is no RF communication – no wireless transmission of data, so the WATT can’t be hacked unless someone is physically using the news crew’s computer.
If the connection is severed, the drone simply lands itself at its point of origin.
Once the WATT is airborne, the change in altitude is the only control a person has over the drone, with the exception of yaw.
“It’s really meant to be a turn-key solution,” Erdberg said, “A truck operator just sets it up, presses a few buttons on a tablet to launch it, and goes back to the truck and controls it from there.”
But, again, all the operator can control is the altitude of the drone and the direction the camera is pointing (yaw). The drone isn’t meant to be flown, it’s meant to be stationary. The inability to move the along an X and Y axis is limiting, but the zoom on the onboard camera has a range of about 3km.
And it goes without saying that a camera that powerful is relatively heavy. The WATT has a payload capacity of 10 pounds and when you add that to the 20 pound drone, it makes sense Drone Aviation would go to extreme lengths to ensure the WATT doesn’t fall out of the sky especially in potentially crowded areas.
Plus, (safety issues aside) nobody is going to want to be responsible for crashing a $35,000 drone.