The Journalistic Drone: You Can Buy it, But Can You Fly It?

Matt Waite with Parrot Drone Image by the Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Matt Waite with Parrot Drone (Image: Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Fifty-five pounds. That’s the weight limit that the FAA proposes for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) small systems – the type of drone that many journalists would like to use in news reporting. Drones can weigh as little as three pounds, though, and cost as little as $80. Some look like model airplanes. Others resemble the stuff of old science fiction movies, with spider-like arms and flashing lights. They can be purchased online - ready to fly - or as kits, ready for home assembly.

With such a low barrier to the friendly skies, you could have your own drone – but should you? With a legal battle brewing between the FAA and a consortium of fifteen major news outlets earlier this week, times are about to get interesting for media watchers.

How did we come to be standing on the brink of this argument, and what exactly is at stake?

Journalists the world over are finding the devices to be extremely helpful for their work. Using drones, they can now capture information and images that were previously almost impossible to get due to cost or time constraints. One commonly cited reason is the cost of news helicopters and crews; many small outlets simply can’t afford them. Crowded cityscapes either prevent the use of manned aircraft for newsgathering, or make it highly risky for air crew and bystanders. Teams have used drones to gather images and evidence of environmental disasters that are unsafe for human teams to gather, and at considerably less expense. Drone footage allows a perspective that is often not possible.

Take for example this recent BBC video of a huge protest in Thailand:

On the down-side, many observers are concerned about the potential for violations of personal privacy and safety. Aside from these are even more delicate concerns about how people feel about drones hovering above them, and about how their presence will affect birds and other wildlife. Some fear also that ready access to drone images may change journalism–and not for the better. Will journalists adopt a “hands-off” attitude? Will news consumers feel confident that stories gathered principally by drone are fully researched?

In anticipation of these and other problems, and to “research the ethical, legal and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft to do journalism” Professor Matt Waite at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln created the Drone Journalism Lab. Waite’s lab has made progress in learning about regulatory issues, although “progress” may not be their term of choice. In August 2013, the Drone Journalism Lab and the Missouri Drone Journalism Program received letters from the FAA requesting that they suspend all outdoor drone activity until they received a COA (Certificate of Authorization).

On Tuesday this week, the FAA announced a ban on the use of drones by media organizations. This move sparked the filing of an amicus brief by fifteen major news organizations, including The Washington Post and the New York Times, in support of drone pilot Raphael Pirker, who was fined $10,000 for using a drone to take aerial footage for a commercial. Pirker succesfully filed an appeal to the National Transportation Safety Board, which the FAA has appealed. The FAA has also sent warning letters to news agencies known to have used drones, even encouraging one publication not to use footage gathered of a burning building by a drone.

At issue, in part, is the FAA’s definition of newsgathering as a commercial pursuit. The media agencies participating in the brief claim that newsgathering is a first amendment right rather than a commercial activity, and therefore deserves greater protection than activities of those engaged in commercial and hobby pursuits.

There’s no denying that the move to use drones for newsgathering has legs. Already, the Professional Society of Drone Journalists has created a hierarchy of ethics and a blog for developers. In anticipation of the day when drones are as much a part of a reporter’s tool kit as a smart phone and a laptop, members are signing up. The FAA has given itself until September of 2015 to determine who can fly drones, and under what conditions. Until then, journalist-researchers such as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Waite and graduate researcher Ben Kreimer are testing devices indoors and in other countries. Kreimer’s footage of Kenyan preserve Ol Pejeta can be seen here.

It gives the rest of us time to consider what we think of drones - and how we will embrace them, or oppose them.

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Posted on

April 14, 2015