What Drones Do the BBC Use?

Last updated February 13th, 2020
BBC building

The BBC has long positioned itself as a pioneer in journalism, willing to try out the latest and greatest innovations in a bid to better present news and entertainment.

This has not always gone well.

For example, they were the first media organization to broadcast a royal wedding (that of Princess Margaret) in 1960. It caused a stir at the time among the locals who felt a royal wedding was too ceremonious an affair to be captured on TV.

Nonetheless, over 20 million people tuned in to watch the spectacle on the television for the first time.

But most times, the BBC’s penchant for implementing brand new technology in their journalism has gone well. And televised royal weddings has proven to be a success, despite initial scepticism.

In 2013, the BBC’s multirotor drones were used for the very first time by the World Language Service’s Global Video Unit. They were used to capture captivating images of the UK-based HS2 railway project.

Ever since then, the viewing public has been treated to constant variations and adaptations of drone footage as the BBC continues to push boundaries and experiment with UAVs.

The BBC has used drones to transport viewers to ring side at momentuous cultural events, natural disasters, dangerous situations, and even war zones.

Basically, BBC journalists used to risk their lives to capture footage in a helicopter, and it’s now being served up using drones — for the most part, at least.

And, yes, this persistent use of drones has not been without its hiccups.

In 2015, 3 BBC journalists got into trouble for operating a drone in a no-fly zone in Davos, during the 2015 World Economic Forum.

However, the BBC’s drone use has continued to grow since then, especially as the memory of the 2015 incident fades with each passing year.

What Sort of Drones Does the BBC Use?

The BBC typically uses hexacopters to capture the iconic footage which they have come to be associated with.

Up until as late as 2014, they were among just a handful of agencies that owned their own in-house drone journalism team.

And this relatively early adoption among broadcasters can be put down to their determination to improve the quality of their news output.

The hexacopters which the BBC use each have six propellers arranged in a wheel over a body that carries the camera. They each have two ski-like legs that enable the UAV land in a stable and firm manner.

An example of a hexacopter like this is the DJI Matrice Pro, which we have reviewed here at Dronesvilla.

At first the crew behind the drone journalism endeavor attached a fixed GoPro to the UAV, but they later decided to attach Micro Four Thirds cameras.

These cameras have the advantage of being small, lightweight, and compact, despite offering excellent video quality and interchangeable lenses.

Difficulties with Using Drones for News Coverage

It has not always been blue skies since the BBC adopted drones as a tool for storytelling. There have been a variety of problems which they have had to grapple with, some of which continue to persist.

Logistics

A number of logistical challenges arise when drones are introduced to an operation like news coverage.

First of all, there are the challenges that come with ensuring that whoever is in charge of the drone is adequately qualified and certified by the authorities in charge of aviation.

There is also the need to ensure that all local, as well as national, drone regulations are being complied with during operation and news coverage. The BBC has a very detailed editorial policy for drone journalism that is updated regularly to keep up with the changing legal landscape.

Another daunting task which the drone journalism team of the BBC has to deal with on a regular basis has to do with transportation. Transporting the drone kit and accessories can be a logistical nightmare sometimes.

Many countries have their own regulations on how to bring drones into their territory and how they can be operated within their territories. Navigating all the nuances involved can be easier said than done.

There is also the relatively bulky nature of the professional hexacopters that the BBC uses.

To make them easier to transport, the team has dismantles the kits into three parts that fit into three big cases. But those are three extra big cases that now have to be grappled with on the trip.

Hopefully, the issue of size and bulk will become less of a problem as drones reduce in size.

Battery Life

Not even the BBC gets to escape the problems that all drone users get to contend with. Chief among these has to do with battery life.

As a news crew, you want to be able to film as long as possible. But this is hard to accomplish with professional drones given their notoriously short battery lifespans.

Improvements continue being made in the drone space, but changes are coming in at a snail pace where battery life is concerned.

However, the shrinking sizes of cameras and UAVs themselves mean that less power is needed to fly them and this has resulted in longer flight times.

Regulations

Owing to the low price of entry and the DIY nature of drone flying, aviation authorities like the Civil Aviation Authority have laid out a broad spectrum of rules to maintain sanity and security within the space.

In the UK, in particular, there are very clear rules on what is allowed and expected of drone pilots. You simply cannot just pick up a drone and go around flying for the purposes of making a quick buck with iconic photography and video footage.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of the UK has been ahead of many of its peers in other countries in drawing up rules for operating drones for commercial ends.

And as a business based in the UK, the BBC adheres to these strictly. Likewise, they have to do same in other countries with their own local laws if these exist.

For example, according to the CAA, drones cannot be flown more than 500m away from the pilot in control of the aircraft and they cannot be flown beyond direct line of sight for safety reasons.

And those are just a few out of many regulations that could hinder the BBC.

Laws like this can complicate news broadcasting and coverage for drone journalists. It means they simply cannot jump out of their plane and start filming away, no matter how eager they may be to do so.

There is a lot of legal and regulatory red tape that needs to be considered and overcome before filming takes place.

Drone Use Keeps Expanding at the BBC

When the drone journalism program was rolled out, it was mainly aimed towards feature storytelling.

But presently, they use drones in many other departments including drama and news coverage.

One can only expect that drones are going to become even more widespread in use within the organization due to all the advantages they bring.

Drones are probably never going to replace helicopters in news coverage. But you can expect them to become just as influential — maybe even more so — in the way corporations like the BBC tell their stories.

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