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Robertson School journalism professor becomes one of the first to receive drone license

Sep 30, 2016

Posted in: News

By William Lineberry

The dream

It was a childhood dream, or obsession depending on how you looked at it. VCU Robertson School professor Gary Gillam knew he wanted to fly, but as he grew into adulthood he began to see the obstacles inhibiting his life-long aspiration. It would be $10,000 off the top to attend flight school and become licensed. Then, after that initial cost, there would be the cost of a plane, storage, maintenance and all the other miscellaneous expenses that would inevitability surface. Gillam believed that the possibility of living out his dream was no longer realistic.

But all that changed when Gillam found out that there isn’t only one way to fly.

“When the quadcopters (drones) came along, it was just like a dream come true,” Gillam, who has been teaching broadcast journalism in the VCU Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture for nine years, said. “With the cameras and everything these things are capable of handling; it’s the next best thing to actually being up there.”

After finding his ticket, Gillam quickly became engrossed with pursuing drones both as a personal hobby but also as a professional tool. As a professional videographer for more than 35 years—and working for major television broadcasts such as Candid Camera and 60 Minutes—Gillam recognized early on the potential of drones being utilized by the media and established as the new industry standard.

His foresight was right, and his initiative paid off. This September, Gillam became one of the first in the country to take and pass the mandatory drone certification test (for all crafts over .55lbs) given by the Federal Aviation Administration. This also served as the first major step to bringing drones into journalism classes in the Robertson School.

Drones in the classroom and the field

Last month, Gillam attended a drone journalism workshop in Lincoln, Nebraska to help prep for the FAA flight test. He took the course alongside some of the industry’s top competitors-- from Associated Press editors to photographers from National Geographic. It was here, he said, that he realized how seriously the professional industry was looking at the future of using drones in their work.

 “Everyone is going to have to get on board with this,” Gillam said as he fiddled with one of his personal drones in the VCU Insight studio. “Just like there was once a demand to know how to use a handheld camera, there will be a demand for our students to have the skills to be able and go out and market themselves as quadcopter pilots. I think we are the perfect people to help them achieve that.”

Gary Gillam holds a small drone
Gary Gillam holds a small drone

On the effectiveness of drones in journalism, Gillam offered an example based on a very common news story—a structure fire. That story has always been told from the ground up, with the same photo from the same angle for years on end, Gillam said. But if you take a drone to tell that same story, the dimension and depth of that story can change dramatically with an aerial photo of it.

Gillam has given brief ‘101-style’ lectures on drones to Robertson School journalism students over the last year. He hopes that along with the help of fellow journalism instructors, the School can begin building a more robust, drone-centric curriculum in the very near future.

“In the School we're always excited about sharing new tools, and drones are great ones for telling stories from a different perspective,” said associate director of the Robertson School and journalism professor, Tim Bajkiewicz, Ph.D. “Gary's certification gives us some solid grounding as we go forward in how we'll get drones into our classes."

As of right now, Gillam said most news publications and outlets in the country— television stations, newspapers, magazines and so on--are probably thinking of how they can become one of the first to implement drones into their news reports. The industry’s problem is, there simply aren’t enough people to meet this new demand. With licensing now required from the FAA for drone flight, every station and publication is eventually going to need that one person with a drone license who can go out and fly the aircraft.

“If you’re on the web—and of course in this day, everyone is—you have to have video,” Gillam said. “And if you’re going to have video, you’re going to want to have video from a quadcopter. Preparing our students to go into these places and be productive off the bat is something we just can’t afford to pass up.”

In the future, Gillam said, he would like the School to offer both theory-based classes on drone journalism—when, how and why journalists should use drones—but also offer courses on drone construction, safety and maintenance. 

“The FAA Airman license Gary has received enables the Robertson School to develop new journalism courses that will involve an unmanned aerial vehicle," said Hong Cheng, Ph.D., director of the School. "Due to the technical and regulatory expertise called for such courses, a licensed instructor in residence is indispensable and instrumental for the School when it further explores drone journalism."