What journalists need to know to fly a drone

Some of the drones that BBC team brought to the session (Photo: Barbara Maseda)

Some of the drones that BBC team brought to the session (Photo: Barbara Maseda)

Drones – also called unmanned aerial systems (UASs) – can provide spectacular views for TV or online video production which would otherwise be unobtainable. When members of a BBC team specially trained to use drones explained in a special BBC Academy Fusion session what factors journalists should take into account when using drones, Online Journalism masters students Carla Pedret and Barbara Maseda (photos) went along. Here are their tips:

1. A toy with CAA permission

The control system can be connected with an iPad (Photo: Barbara Maseda)

The control system can be connected with an iPad (Photo: Barbara Maseda)

The control system of a drone is similar to a gaming console, but with a radio signal, GPS and multiple sensors.

Although they are technically easy to manage, you need the permission of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which should be renewed annually.

The CAA controls permissions not only because drones are aerial systems, but also because drone operators should be able to read navigation maps, i.e. the maps used by planes.

2. What you can/can’t do with drones

Drones have some technical and legal aspects that it’s worth knowing.


  • Drones cannot fly over congested areas without a specific authorization
  • Permission of the landowner for taking off and landing is always needed
  • They cannot directly overhead or fly within 50 meters of any person, vessel or structure not controlled by the pilot (people or places the pilot already knows or agrees)

Technical limitations

  • Battery life is between 5 and 20 minutes. If the production takes all day, it is likely to need a generator
  • Batteries are highly flammable
  • Height limit is 400 feet above ground level
  • Maximum range of 500 meters
  • They should fly always under visual control of the operator
  • Drones have limitations to fly at high altitude due to air pressure
  • Cannot fly at night

Weather conditions

  • Wind: maximum 20 mph
  • Extreme temperatures: nothing below -10C or above 40ºC
  • Avoid strong rain

3. The best stories to use a drone

Drones can produce amazing images and give video a different point of view.

BBC Drone operator Neil Paton has analysed what kind of stories use drone images and when.

News reports tend to use them at the beginning, in the middle and at the end, while use in online pieces is more widespread.

Captura de pantalla 2016-02-07 a las 16.46.44

Based on his experience, Neil Paton recommends the following stories as the best to use a drone:

  • Stories that involve big subjects (like this one)
  • Industrial and transport pieces 
  • Housing stories
  • Agricultural, environmental and rural affairs

4. Types of cameras

Drones have a wide range of prices: from £1,500 to £30,000.

Apart from the size, one of the main differences is the type of camera they have.

Smaller and lighter drones have GoPro cameras (Hero 3+ or Hero 4) which have the inconvenience of fish eye lenses that can disrupt stories.

For medium drones and better quality footage, experts recommend the Canon 5D Mark III or the Panasonic GH4, which is cheaper, lighter and with very good video quality.

Cameras from Blackmagic are quite common as well.

More information about camera options for drones here.

5. £5million insurance and two operators

The image shows a runner who was injured by a drone during a race (Photo: BBC website)

The image shows a runner who was injured by a drone during a race (Photo: BBC website)

Even if we follow all the recommendations, accidents may occur and insurance is a basic to avoid any risk.

The minimum value to insure against when flying a drone is £5million, although the BBC uses insurance valued at £20million. This is suitable in the UK but also overseas.

BBC regulations also state:

“The operator’s public liability insurance must specifically cover the flying of UAS for the purpose of aerial filming.”

As a general rule, two operators should control the drone. One should direct the flight while the other one should control the camera and the images taken.

A version of this post first appeared on Carla’s site here.

Do you have any more tips or examples of drones being used? Please let me know in the comments or @carlapedret

UPDATE [April 21 2016]: Drone operators are advised to use a spectrum analyser to ensure that the radio frequency being used is clear.

1 thought on “What journalists need to know to fly a drone

  1. Pingback: The Week in Robots

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