To birds, they are UFOs and not to be trusted.
To drone operators, they are today's way of doing business — a new tool of many trades.
To much of the world, the futuristic-looking gadgets are delivering a whole new perspective.
But the sky has limits.
A new news perspective
When a camera gets its own name, it's a big deal.
Moline-based WQAD News Channel 8 was ahead of the TV field two years ago when its first few photographers started studying for a test they never dreamed they'd be taking. They would have to prove to the FAA that they knew how to safely fly the station's expensive new drone. And that meant proving their understanding of physics, weather — even airport codes.
“I just made it a mission to get every photographer and every member of our digital team to be licensed pilots,” news director Alan Baker said. “The hardest part about it is taking the exam.
“Everybody got two months to study.”
After the first three photographers passed the reportedly challenging exam, “NED” began to take flight. An acronym for News Eight Drone, the industrial-model aircraft almost instantly became a popular part of the news team; its image even appearing on a news car.
With the capacity to deliver live video from the sky, WQAD’s drone fleet soared.
The station now has 12 of the aircraft — one for every photographer and one to spare. Though “Big NED” remains the largest and most powerful in the fleet, the others, nine “Little NEDs” and one “Phantom” can go live, too.
“I have the largest number of pilots in our company, which is Tribune Media,” Baker said. “I’m a former photographer myself. It’s a different way to shoot video than we’ve ever had before outside of a helicopter.
“Viewer reaction has been very good. Drone videos we post online have been some of our most popular. One of our first was from the tornado in Ottawa last year. We had a bird’s-eye view of the damage.”
As seen from above
News drones don’t need a tornado touchdown to be called into service.
Photographers are finding new ways to employ their aircraft in everyday stories.
“Whenever I was shooting, I was looking for ways to get high — up on a parking garage or a wall or fence; anything,” said Andy McKay, WQAD's chief photographer. “The drones can go almost anywhere, and we use them in features, breaking news, general news.”
Photographer Jenny Hipskind said she has found low-flying uses for her drone, too.
“Sometimes, a foot above a cornfield gives you something really nice,” she said. “Low shots can be cool, too.
“Ag is a good use, along with breaking news of accidents where we can’t get close and flooding, ice jams and bridge shots.
“Birds will attack them sometimes, though. They think you're a threat.”
Many professional production companies have replaced film cameras with drones, said Doug Froehlich, a Creative Services Producer at WQAD. The station also uses them to shoot video for commercials for clients, long-form video productions and for their own promotions.
The video is desirable because of its unique access and its quality, he said.
“NED, for instance, is extremely stable, even in high wind,” he said. “It’s like a tripod in the sky.”
The big drone requires two operators — one to run the drone controls and one to run the camera. But the smaller ones, which make up the bulk of the fleet, require just one operator. In the event that more than one drone is up, internal sensors prevent them from colliding. And, the moment the pilot lets go of the controls, the drone stops flying and "parks" in mid-air.
“They add a whole new dimension to what we’re shooting in news,” photographer Stephanie Mattan said. “When I shot the new bridge at Sabula and got some video of the car ferry, it gave viewers a whole new perspective of that project.”
During the implosion of the old bridge at Sabula/Savanna, NED shot live while two other drones shot from different angles.
But drones are not above the law, and all licensed operators are subject to FAA rules, regarding access to airspace. Those rules are undergoing changes that aim to make it easier for pilots to fly more freely in airspace that is protected because of proximity to airports.
Used with caution
To the FAA, a drone is known as an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS.
And there are two types of operators: Licensed pilots and hobbyists.
In addition to passing an exam, licensed pilots must follow a whole host of UAS rules established by the FAA. And it is incumbent upon the operator to know the rules.
"Hobbyists get to do whatever they want," Hipskind said. "The pros have all these rules."
Rule number one: Airspace within a 5-mile radius of an airport is off limits, unless the pilot has an FAA-issued waiver.
Froehlich at WQAD has such a waiver, permitting him to fly in a half-mile radius of downtown Bettendorf. He sought the waiver, so the station could get video of Interstate 74 bridge construction, even though it is within the no-fly zone designation of the Quad-City International Airport.
It took him four months to get the FAA to approve it.
"The waiver process is long and slow," said Baker, the news director. "It's cumbersome. We're looking forward to some relief."
And it recently arrived.
As of Sept. 14, WQAD drone operators were able to get real-time approval on their requests to enter restricted airspace. Froehlich said he asked for permission to send up his drone just west of the airport on the day the system went live, and he received permission to do so "in less than 30 seconds."
The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability — LAANC — is a partnership between the FAA and private industry to support Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) access to previously restricted airspace. The new system took about six months to test and approve, and the FAA will continue to monitor its success.
Pilots simply submit an access request through a cell-phone app, which then goes to the local air traffic control tower. Requests are checked against airspace data, including temporary flight restrictions.
"Local authorities have established areas around the airport that are safe to fly for drone operations and qualify for automatic authorization," an FAA spokesman said last week. "The local air traffic control facility creates gridded maps called UAS Facility Maps that define a maximum height for which an operation could be considered safe for automatic authorization. Also, as drone pilots plan their flights, they are reminded of restrictions in the area and notifications they should be aware of."
Meanwhile, licensed pilots continue to have other rules to contend with, including a maximum altitude of 400 feet and maintaining visual sight of their drones at all times. Their aircraft cannot exceed 55 pounds and must have a ground speed of less than 100 miles an hour.
Other rules are common-sense based; like using caution when photographing a fire from above.
"We don't want to get over the top of a fire where there's too much heat, or we can upset firefighters," McKay said. "We've met with Medic EMS and the Illinois State Police, so they know what we're trying to do.
"Emergency responders are busy. They shouldn't have to worry about what's in the sky."
In some cases, law enforcement can make drone rules on the fly. For instance, when police were being led to the remains of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts in a farm field in August, Baker said, they issued a temporary no-fly zone in the area.
Drones in law enforcement, real estate
Television news isn't the only industry being impacted by Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Drones are widely used in real-estate listings and in nearly every level of law enforcement.
Brent Bult is regional sales manager for Vizzi Media Solutions in Clive, Iowa, which does considerable real estate photography business in the Quad-Cities.
He passed his drone operator's license two years ago and said aerial photography for real estate listings has been taking off ever since.
"We have seen a big increase in the number of agents and their customers expecting aerial photography and video as the standard for their listings," he said. "I would say 90 percent of what we do is outdoor photography for residential real estate. It's very big."
Vizzi offers a number of photo packages, beginning with three aerial shots for $100. Most drone photos are taken from the front and rear of a home, but homeowners frequently request specific shots, such as a back-yard swimming pool or a neighboring golf course or water view.
Bult said he has many agents with Ruhl & Ruhl, Mel Foster and Keller-Williams in the Quad-Cities, so he frequently travels here.
"We're seeing a big, big increase in volume and revenue in the Quad-Cities," he said. "Part of what we do is to educate local Realtors. Some of them are buying their own drones, but they aren't getting licensed. They don't realize the rules — that you can't make money, collect that commission, as a hobbyist operator.
"Agents know their business is very competitive and, today, you have to have aerials with your listings. Homeowners expect it."
Some housing markets aren't quite so hot on aerials, though. Homes listed under $100,000 or those in foreclosure typically don't generate drone traffic, Bult said.
Though he was unfamiliar with the FAA's LAANC initiative, Bult said the system sounds like a promising way to avoid drone delays.
"If I'm in a no-fly zone or close to restricted airspace, my drone lets me know," he said. "If I'm actually in the space, it won't fly. That new FAA system sounds wonderful."
Crime scenes, bomb threats
Bettendorf Police Chief Keith Kimball's department was on a mission in July to locate a specific drone. A 1-year-old was badly injured at Crow Creek Park after being struck by an out-of-control drone. The operator, a teenager, ultimately came forward.
The 19-year-old was cited and fined for operating a drone in a city park, which requires city permission in Bettendorf.
But this is not to say police are anti-drone.
"At this time, we do not have a drone or use a drone but, as the technology advances, I could see us getting one in the future," Kimball said.
He then provided the following list of uses for drones in law enforcement: Traffic accident investigation and reconstruction; search and rescue; active shooter response; SWAT/tactical operations; surveillance and crowd monitoring; crime scene analysis; hazardous materials incidents; bomb threats; surveying damage from natural disasters.
When a child fell into the Mississippi River from a dock at Schwiebert Riverfront Park in Rock Island on July 24, area firefighters searched for days by boat. An out-of-town volunteer search team came to Rock Island a week later and suggested that a drone be sent up to shoot video along the shoreline as an effective way to search for remains.
But the strategy didn't take off before the 2-year-old's body was found a couple days later near Muscatine.
Members of the boy's family lamented that he may have been found much earlier; if only local law enforcement had a way to search the river from the sky.