Drone cameras – tool or toy for journalism and brands?

Camera droneDrones – cameras mounted on Chinook-like mini helicopters – created a lot of buzz at the World Association of Newspapers conference in Hong Kong last week. Will they take off among news gatherers and brands in Asia, wonders Robin Hicks?

While most of the chatter at the WAN-IFRA conference in Hong Kong last week revolved around the usual theories on how to stem chronic circulation and revenue decline for the region’s newspapers, there was a sponsor stand belonging to tech firm CCI that provided a welcome diversion: the drone. 

Tool or toy?

Tool or toy? Drones on display in Hong Kong

CCI doesn’t make drones (flying cameras with helicopter blades, not the unmanned military craft the Americans use in Afghanistan). It makes publishing software. But the latest gadget for news gatherers – and potentially for brands – succeeded in attracting curious newspaper publishers to CCI’s stand with the trusty allure of a lucky draw to win one.

Probably the biggest plus for publishing companies right now is that drones are cheap and easy to buy. On Alibaba.com, 207,909 products from 1,990 suppliers pop up with the search ‘drone camera’, with the price of a single unit ranging from a few hundred to just under US$2,000 for a unit.

The images you can get from drones are pretty good (even cheap models come with high definition cameras), as the world saw from the coverage of the anti-government protests in Thailand earlier this year – the first time drones themselves made headlines in Asia.

The gadgets are easy to use. With some cheaper models, you can even use a smartphone to manoeuvre them. If you drop the remote control, the drone will hang in the air, hovering. It doesn’t drop out of the sky.

Camero drone  before take off

Camero drone before take off

They’re lightweight. Most weigh no more than 1kg (most of the weight is in the rechargable battery).

They’re agile. They can get close to their subjects, with a flight time of around 25 minutes and a reach of one kilometre from the operator.

They’re not noticeable to those they’re filming, because they’re small, don’t make much noise and are usually sky-coloured.

They could be just as useful for brands as they are for journalism. Running a tourism campaign on a low budget, but need some decent aerial shots? Want to film your flash mob?

The sticking point, of course, is privacy. Unsurprisingly, some people don’t want to be snooped on by a camera with wings. But governments are undecided on how to regulate their use.

The commercial use of drones is banned in America, but allowed in Britain. In Denmark, I was told by a Danish CCI executive at the WAN-IFRA conference, drones used by media companies are not allowed within 150 metres of residential areas (but most journalists break that rule all the time).

In Asia, there hasn’t been much legislation around their use yet, so it could be worth testing them now to see what works and what doesn’t. They’re too cheap not to at least try.

The winner of the lucky draw competition at the WAN-IFRA conference works for Singapore Press Holdings, so I’ll be watching coverage of the Straits Times with interest over the next few weeks.

SPH, why not start today to film the queues building outside McDonald’s stores for the Hello Kitty promotion?

Robin Hicks


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