Meet the Desert Sun drone: Grounded but not forgotten

January 8th, 2014 | by Brett Kelman | Comments

Like a classic car that is too pristine to drive, or a collectible comic book that is too valuable to be read, this is a tragic story of lost potential with a modern twist: A drone that never gets to fly.

Meet the Desert Sun drone.


It’s a plucky, brightly-colored little gadget, no bigger than a child’s toy, with four propellers that allow it hover while it captures footage from above. Around the newsroom, it’s jokingly referred to as “News ‘Copter One,” (only by me).

Drones – the common name for small, unmanned aircraft, often fixed with cameras – hold a great deal of promise for journalists, including your local news crew at The Desert Sun. Potentially, these tools allow journalists to gather information, photos and footage in ways that were previously out of reach.

Because of this potential, there was a great deal of excitement when the newspaper bought the drone last year.

However, as of today, the Desert Sun drone is relegated to a corner of a photo lab, hidden under a lamp shade, like a toy nobody wants to play with. With the exception of a brief test flight, it hasn’t flown in months.

At first, it was grounded by malfunction. (We broke it almost immediately.)

However, now that the drone has been fixed, a new hurdle threatens to keep it grounded for good.

As drones become more commonplace on (or above) American soil, the Federal Aviation Administration has been forced to draft rules for these tiny aircraft. Currently, hobbyists are allowed to fly drones for fun, but businesses, including newspapers, aren’t allowed to do the same.

On Monday, the Poynter Institute (a highly-respected journalism school, which also covers journalism issues so journalists can read about each other) published an article about how the FAA is cracking down on journalists who use drones.

During an interview with Poynter, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said that, without exception, journalists are forbidden from using drones to gather news.

“If you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” Dorr told Poynter.

The FAA response was prompted by The Spokesman-Review, a newspaper in Spokane, Wash., that published a drone-shot video of a local event last week. When asked about the legality of the footage, the photographer who took the video tweeted that “in a gray area.”

“There is no gray area,” Dorr told Poytner.

That’s a shame. Just imagine fly-by footage of Coachella music festival, or an overhead perspective of last year’s Mountain Fire. If that sounds cool to you, you just have no idea how giddy we get about it.

Desert Sun photojournalist Jay Calderon, who had the most use of our drone, says, “It’s unfortunate that they’ve gone out of their way to exclude journalists from using drones for news coverage. It’s a valuable tool for news gathering and hopefully they will reconsider in 2015.”

The FAA is in the process of drafting rules for drone use, but it is unclear if these rules will change the agency’s stance on drone journalism. It is also unclear when exactly the rules will be available. The FAA goal is to establish rules for law enforcement and businesses to use drones by 2015, according to an article by the Los Angeles Times.

In the meantime, our drone stays on the ground.

See the drone in action in this video shot in early 2013 by photojournalist Jay Calderon.


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