Jim Witt

Star-Telegram has its own ‘air force’ now

Years ago, big-city newspapers envied TV stations for two reasons.

Although newspapers usually had much larger staffs, they didn’t have the ability to get news out to the public immediately. With the Internet, that’s not a problem any more.

And TV stations also had helicopters, so they could go anywhere immediately and get great aerial photos and video.

If the story was big enough, the Star-Telegram would sometimes rent a helicopter, but with prices starting at about $1,000 an hour, we didn’t do it much, probably no more than a few times a year.

But now we have our own “helicopter,” although it’s just a miniature version of those the TV stations use.

Called a drone, or unmanned aircraft, it gives us the ability to match the photography they get at a fraction of the price. We paid less than the cost of one hour of helicopter rental time for our entire setup — a quadcopter drone with four propellers, Go-Pro camera and gimbal, which keeps the camera steady.

The only problem is the Federal Aviation Administration never envisioned the magnitude of the demand for drones, and current rules are so restrictive we’ve only been able to use it a few times.

We’d love to be able to fly over things like the huge crowds at the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival or a big wreck on Interstate 35W and get still photos and video.

But FAA rules prohibit that. The government is formulating new airspace regulations that will include drones, but for now we have to follow three rules:

1. Don’t fly over people.

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2. Don’t fly over any property — private, corporate or government — without express consent of the owner.

3. Don’t fly near an airport, above 400 feet, or out of sight of the drone operator.

If you break those rules, you could be subject to a fine of up to $10,000. As a practical matter the FAA is giving out cease-and-desist orders instead of prosecuting.

Only one case has reached the courts. It was dismissed in favor of the pilot, who was flying a drone over the University of Virginia to shoot a video for the school.

Congress passed legislation in 2003 directing the agency to come up with new airspace safety rules, and some might come out as early as next month.

Dozens of industries see the potential for using drones. Amazon has been preparing to deliver goods by drone when it’s legal, and one company in Wisconsin wants to deliver beer to ice fishermen in remote locations.

Hollywood is helping pave the way. Last week the FAA granted six companies the right to use drones while filming on closed TV and movie sets.

I was at an event in downtown Fort Worth recently and someone was flying a drone over the crowd. If it fell on your head from 400 feet, it might leave a pretty good bump.

The manufacturer says if there’s a malfunction the drone is programmed to return to base, but I wouldn’t count on it.

So far, we have used our drone to film the new building at the Kimbell Art Museum and the opening of the Seventh Street bridge. We’ve also filmed flyovers of the holes at several golf courses.

The drone gives us dramatic birds-eye views. One day, our photographers will carry drones in their car trunks as part of their regular equipment.

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