SOAR, which is a creative acronym for Sailing Over America, takes viewers on a drone tour around the country.
“We call it [SOAR] because we look at drones, and drone technology, not so much as an aircraft technology,” Stan Heist, director of news training and development at Sinclair, said. “It’s really about bringing viewers the experience of flying. The experience of seeing the world from different perspectives.”
When Sinclair launched STIRR — the group’s new OTT platform — in January, it gave the SOAR team an additional platform to share its content. In addition to the one-minute segments that the SOAR producers began with — and still produce for local stations — they now compile exclusively for STIRR.
The new SOAR channel on the platform started with 4 to 5 episodes, has 15 now, and is planning to expand to 22 a year, Adam Ware, GM of STIRR said.
Sinclair has 44 local TV stations around the country with trained drone pilots and visual observers — one person to fly the drone and another to plan out the shots. According to Heist, to be a certified drone pilot for Sinclair, you have to be FAA Part 107 certified and you also have to attend a three-day training course. For those who are just visual observers, there is an online program to complete.
The stations use this technology to cover everything from breaking news to features to weather.
As a group, they’ve been using drones since August 2016, so they had an enormous stockpile of footage.
“We’ve got stations everywhere. There’s all different kinds of geography and landscapes and beauty to America,” Heist said. “Let’s highlight them. Let’s not let this just slip away in the local market. Let’s try to share this across the group.”
In 2018 Sinclair began compiling this footage, asking each station to send in its best SOAR-style drone footage once a month. A producer from the national desk in Washington takes the footage, compiles it around a central theme, and sends it back out each week to the stations to use, if they want, on their website or broadcast.
As Heist explained, the videos do show stunning pictures, but it’s about more than just throwing together the coolest video each week. The SOAR producer works to create a “short vignette” with the content that stations send in each week, so “there’s a little bit of purpose behind each one.”
So far SOAR has explored themes like “Farewell to Fall,” “Sunrises worth waking up for” and “Sailing over frozen rivers.”
Of course SOAR has had challenges with FAA regulations — anyone who’s ever flown a drone would understand that — but Heist credits the education and training of his pilots, which allows them to “look for solutions that fall within regulations.”
On top of that, Heist has even created a one-sheet for the newsrooms to have on the assignment desk or in their conference rooms. It lays out the bare bones of the FAA regulations to help inform everyone in the newsroom before they ask the pilots go out and shoot a drone story. “They have a little bit of a perspective about what our pilots face out in the field, so they can make better decisions sooner,” Heist said.
For Sinclair, SOAR is a way to create a longer flight plan for all that drone footage. “There is great work out there, and to have it only go once, in one market, it’s a shame,” Heist said. “So that’s why we want to highlight it.”
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