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The coronavirus pandemic has newsrooms across the country and the world scrambling to deliver vital information to their audiences. Newscasts and publications have taken on new value at a time where the public is intently tuned in to each breaking story about the disease.

But newsroom drone pilots may feel a little left out of the action as this story has put people indoors, carrying the story there with them. One silver lining is there are now great opportunities to get drone pictures and footage in areas that were previously hard to capture in a busier world. The ideas below can spark a story now or put footage into the archives for use when you need it later. As always, consult federal, state and local drone regulations before flying in any of these places to be sure you are doing it lawfully and entirely by the book.

Get a good look at pavement conditions on your busiest highways

By now you have probably seen footage of the almost empty Los Angeles freeway system carrying just a tiny fraction of the volume it would on a normal weekday. These shots alone are a story in themselves, but why not use the opportunity of nearly empty roads to get drone footage from overhead to inspect for the pavement conditions? In the most congested cities, it’s nearly impossible to see the pavement in daylight without it being covered by a moving blanket of vehicles. Drone flights now can reveal wear patterns, potholes, crumbling lanes and more. Remember that the FAA’s Part 107 rules still prohibit flying over moving vehicles, so it is still necessary to fly above the shoulder if ANY moving cars are present.

Inspect municipal and other parking lots for their conditions

There’s no need to limit the downward gaze of your drone just to where people drive. Fly over where they park as well, putting particular focus on city-owned parking lots. Unlike with the moving cars, there’s no FAA prohibition of flying over parked cars, so there’s no limit on angles. Commercial services use drones for this kind of inspection to let owners know when to make repairs. For public lots where taxpayers are the owners, this can make the beginning of a good enterprise story.

Catalog images of your most interesting—or dangerous intersections

Road planners often try out novel approaches to moving traffic through congested intersections (like Missouri’s diverging diamond intersections that force cars to drive on the left in the busiest areas), leaving drivers puzzled about just how to navigate these roadway rarities. Planners sometimes release animations showing the intersection from an aerial perspective to instruct drivers how they work. Why not use the relative quiet to get photographs and videos of the intersections that an art department can then use to build custom animations for news explainers? Or launch an investigation into your region’s most dangerous intersections with top-down photos or footage of just what it is that makes them so dangerous.

Map out the places your city needs sidewalks with aerial views of unpaved paths

There are some interesting patterns you can reveal with an aerial view over where the sidewalk ends. The UK Guardian newspaper did an excellent photographic study of where planners failed in building sidewalks, proven by the paths feet cut in the grass and dirt. In this country, using a drone can normally be tricky because of the FAA prohibition against flying drones over people. Now, as the sidewalks and paths have lost most of their foot traffic, a drone can fly safely over the areas.

Fly the best hiking trails in your region

Consider flying over the best hiking trails in your area, just now turning green for spring in much of the country. Without the usual complement of hikers, it’s legal to fly over these trails to show their terrain and scenery. Don’t be like this guy and remember the National Park Service still prohibits drone use in any of its parks and your state and local laws may also limit your ability to fly in a park.

Fly the best beaches in your region

If hiking isn't your thing, maybe a trip to the beach is in order. With everyone staying in, many beaches are just as empty as the trails. This is a chance to capture the natural beauty of the beach. Just as with parks, check the state and local laws to be sure they’re not off limits and remember that some beaches are part of the national park system as well.

Show where the crowds are and where they are not

This list ends with one actual coronavirus story. Our movement patterns have changed due to working from home, avoiding packed spaces and with the closure of a lot of businesses. A striking example of those shifts would be photos or footage of the most crowded parking lots, perhaps grocery stores, discount stores and anyone with toilet paper, compared to the empty ones at schools, malls and major employers. Plenty of photographers have captured single images, but this is a chance to build a story over time that’s even more appealing. Saving these images would also come in handy to show how things are returning to normal. For instance, fly up and get the same shot of the local mall parking lot at 3 pm every day. A time lapse of these over a month or more would show how shoppers are returning to normal spending patterns as the crisis eases. 

There are dozens more ideas drone journalists can get out to do during the COVID-19 outbreak. To tap into these, news managers should consider a brainstorming session with pilots, other journalists and anyone else in the organization who wants to pitch in.

Stacey Woelfel  
 
Director of Aerial Journalism



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