Drone journalism begins slow take off

Ethical, legal issues abound as drones contemplated for newsgathering
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AP Photo by Britta Pedersen

Drones can be used to do many things. In this instance, this remote controlled helicopter in Berlin is supposed to apply artificial DNA to cables of a telecommunications company in order to prevent thefts of copper.

The word “drone” conjures up visions of huge military aircraft dropping bombs overseas, or of tiny machines flitting through buildings, spying on the occupants inside. Imagining a time when more than 30,000 of these unmanned vehicles will fill U.S. skies sounds like a scene from a science fiction novel but will soon be reality.

And using drones for journalism might sound even more far-fetched, but it’s already happening.

In February, the Obama Administration passed a law requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to prepare the skies - and the courts - for commercial drones by 2015, and journalists already are working to integrate drone use into everyday reporting.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Missouri have integrated drone research into their journalism programs. A small but growing number of journalists are joining the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, which has established an ethics code emphasizing the importance of “newsworthiness, safety and sanctity” of public spaces in drone reporting.

Drone journalism advocates are already facing legal, ethical and societal roadblocks. Four states have passed laws restricting drone use, and 39 more are considering similar legislation.

Some proposed legislation — such as a bill in Missouri — specifically addresses journalists, barring them from flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over areas without permission from landowners. Drone supporters such as Matthew Waite, the director of the Nebraska drone journalism program, are concerned that this kind of legislation raises First Amendment questions.

While Waite said there are some valid privacy concerns, the legislation could gravely impact drone journalism. He said restrictions on when, where and how drones are used could even cross over into traditional journalism by limiting reporters’ and photographers’ access to privately owned areas.

“In 15 years, the things UAVs will be used for will be boring,” Waite said. “We’ll have four or five of them sitting on the roof of the local news organization. A scanner call will go out for a bad accident and instead of sending a reporter to drive out and see if it’s anything they’ll just fly over it, snap a picture and make a decision.”

Paving the way

Waite first stumbled across drones when he attended a digital mapping conference in the summer of 2011. He walked past a display that showed a four-foot-wide airplane with a camera zig-zagging across a field, taking thousands of pictures in an area an operator hundreds of feet below had programmed. The operator took a memory stick from the aircraft, plugged it into the computer and within minutes produced a high-resolution image of the area.

Immediately, Waite had what he called “a thunderclap moment.”

“I thought, well, there’s every hurricane I’ve ever covered, every tornado I’ve ever covered, every flood, every wildfire, every disaster — we could have that (photo) out and within a matter of hours we could really improve the perspective and understanding of a natural disaster,” said Waite, who formerly worked for the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, and PolitiFact.

Waite said he ran up to the salesman at the booth and handed him his wallet. The salesman laughed, handed his wallet back to him informed him that those drones ran about $65,000 each and were illegal in the United States.

Waite returned to The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and began researching drone use in the United States. “I wasn’t ready to let my dream die yet,” he said.

He learned that it is illegal to use drones for commercial purposes — including journalism — but flying them as a hobby was acceptable. When he learned that the FAA would allow the operation of commercial drones by 2015, Waite approached the dean about drone journalism.

“I said, ‘hey, I think this is going to be a thing one day, and we ought to start talking about it,’” Waite said. “Not only are there technical and regulatory issues that journalists have never dealt with before on this scale, but new ethical and legal questions. This gap in time between now and when it’s legal is an opportunity for us to discuss those things before we have to go out and do it for real.”

In November 2011, the university started its drone journalism lab to “pave the way for the unknown,” Waite said. The school does not offer a course and there is no curriculum yet, because the subject is so new.

Three students now get research credit for their efforts in the lab. Participants work in a tool-filled room and have built four drones from scratch. Students have reported on drought in Nebraska by taking aerial video and collecting water samples with the UAVs. Waite also keeps up a blog about the lab and general drone issues.

There are two goals of the program, Waite said. One is to document the technical aspects of operating drones: what can be done with the equipment and what kind of training is needed to fly them. The other goal is exploring the ethics of drone journalism.

“What are the legal questions that traditional reporting hasn’t dealt with?” Waite said. “What are the regulatory issues? What kind of certification will be required by the FAA?”

Legal and ethical issues

Under the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the FAA has been charged with fully integrating commercial drones into U.S. airspace by 2015. The act does not require the FAA to address the privacy concerns involved with commercial drones, and the agency has stated that it does not have the authority to make or enforce privacy-related rules.

Advocacy groups and lawmakers are left to address the issue.

“I think in 15 years we will all wonder what all the fuss was about,” Waite said. “But, rest assured, in the intervening 15 years, there’s going to be a whole lot of fuss.”

Thirty-nine states are considering legislation restricting drone use. Four states and several cities have already passed drone laws, most of which are in place to protect residents from “unwarranted surveillance.” These require law enforcement officials to be granted a warrant before using drones in investigations.

Other proposed laws might affect journalists more directly and could even overlap into other forms of newsgathering unrelated to drones, Waite said. Texas legislators have proposed a bill to ban aerial photography from remote vehicles, and privacy groups have petitioned for every drone flight to require FAA approval — a clear example of a prior restraint, Waite said.

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ First Amendment Handbook, prior restraint is when a government agency restricts what content can be published. If the FAA denied a reporter’s request to fly a drone because of the subject being covered, it could be unconstitutional.

Scott Pham, the director of the University of Missouri Drone Journalism Program, said the FAA’s silence on drone use is creating confusion.

“Are states able to regulate this kind of thing?” Pham said. “This is why we have a Federal Aviation Administration. Airspace is federal. I don’t know how states get to decide these things just because they pass a law — it’s just something we’ve accepted. Would it hold up in court? I have no idea.”

Missouri’s drone journalism program began in January and is a collaboration among the journalism school, the information technology department and local NPR affiliate KBIA. Engineering and journalism graduate students are working together to build the drones, and students have already produced two stories that have been aired on KBIA.

The drone program is being threatened by a bill that, in some ways, seems to be targeting the program, Pham said.

“Because of the need to protect Missourians from invasions of privacy in the state . . . this act is deemed necessary for the immediate preservation of the public health, welfare, peace and safety,” the bill states.

The bill, which Pham calls “anti-free speech, anti-journalism and all together backward,” explicitly addresses journalists and limits drone flights to airspace where the owner of the property below has given consent.

“No person, group of persons, entity, or organization, including, but not limited to, journalists, reporters, or news organizations, shall use a drone or other unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance of any individual or property owned by an individual or business without the consent of that individual or property owner,” the bill states.

Pham said the program already abides by those rules and does not “conduct surveillance” but instead gathers data and footage.

“So much of [the bill] hinges on the word ‘surveillance,’ and while there might be legal subtleties to this word that I don’t understand, it’s hard for me to see if any of the work we do is ‘surveillance,’” Pham said.

Republican Rep. Casey Guernsey, who sponsored the bill, said he is concerned that drones will allow the government to spy on citizens, according to news reports. Guernsey told the Gateway Journalism Review that he also is opposed to drone journalism.

“If they want to learn about it, that’s perfectly fine,” Guernsey said about the university’s drone journalism program. “If we are moving into an age of news agencies using drones to collect information on private citizens, I’m definitely concerned about that.”

Matthew Schroyer, the founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, said lawmakers are overreacting to critics’ fear of drones. The models journalists would use are too big to hover surreptitiously outside windows, he said.

“Some privacy concerns are appropriate and some are not really based on the capabilities of the aircraft but are more a product of fear for how they’ve been used in the military,” Schroyer said.

Schroyer acknowledged that drones can invade privacy if put in the wrong hands. That is why PSDJ has created a Code of Ethics, he said.

Drones should only be used if there are no other means of investigating a potential story, and privacy laws and traditional journalism ethics should be followed when reporting with a UAV, according to the Code of Ethics. The Code also addresses the more technical part of drone journalism. Because journalists and photographers will be the ones operating the UAVs, they should be trained to operate drones safely and abide by airspace regulations.

“We always ask the question, is this newsworthy? Is there any other way to get these photos other than using unmanned aircraft?” Schroyer said. “Nobody on our website thinks bikini shots are worthwhile pursuits of journalism.”

The future of drone journalism

Waite said that after he saw that first drone at the convention, he started seeing “drone journalism” popping up across America.

“It wasn’t journalists using them, but it was people doing things that looked a lot like journalism,” he said.

In 2011, a Texas hobbyist flew a remote controlled airplane with a camera over the Columbia Packing Co. meatpacking plant and saw that the company was illegally dumping pig blood into the Trinity River, which runs through Dallas. The hobbyist turned the images over to environmental regulators and the company was prosecuted and shut down.

U.S. military drones were also used to measure radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan after it was destroyed by the 2011 tsunami. Drones were able to collect data and provide the first peek into the destroyed plant.

Waite said this kind of environmental, agricultural and meteorological research is what many journalists will do with drones. In fact, Missouri’s drone journalism program has been doing just that. They’ve produced stories on prairie fires and the migration patterns of snow geese, using aerial footage and data collected by the drone.

Drones will not replace helicopters because they have such a short battery life, but they could do many things news stations currently use helicopters for, Waite said.

“The morning traffic copter is a horrid waste of money when you think that a helicopter is $4 million,” Waite said. “You have a pilot, insurance, fuel, maintenance and many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to operate it, and for a fraction of that cost I could build you a multi rotor with a camera that could be programmed to fly every ten minutes on the hour to shoot traffic.”

Schroyer said the mapping and data-collecting capabilities of drones will make them powerful tools for journalists, but UAVs can offer journalists something even more valuable, especially in war zones: safety.

Schroyer started DroneJournalism.org in 2011 after coming across a do-it-yourself drone website and learning about the machines. Around the time he started the blog, British freelance photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed by shrapnel from a mortar in Libya.

“That brought awareness to the fact that he was someone covering a very important thing and risked his life,” Schroyer said. “Tim left a big hole in the community and it awakened people to the fact that it’s a dangerous job. Anything you can do to put distance between yourself and that danger is a good thing.”

The affordability, safety and high-tech ability to collect images and data make drones a powerful tool that every newsroom should be using, Waite said. However, he said, getting to that point will be difficult.

“Drone journalism is on the cusp of being a thing — but we’re on the wrong side of the cusp,” Waite said. “We’re on the uphill side. We see the top but we just have to get there.”

State-by-state legislation on drones

Nearly 40 states have introduced some sort of legislation that would regulate how law enforcement officials can use drones. Most of the legislation would require police to obtain a probable cause warrant before using a drone in an investigation.

Some proposed bills include exemptions for felonies, drug crimes and human smuggling, and some ban weaponizing drones. Others make aerial photography illegal or require operators to get landowner permission before flying drones over certain areas.

Commercial drone use is not squarely addressed in any legislation because it will not be legal until 2015. But one bill in Missouri requires journalists to get consent from landowners before flying drones over their property.

Many of these proposed laws limit the rights of drone operators without solving the privacy issues they claim to address, said Scott Pham, director of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program.

States that have enacted drone legislation:

Florida, Idaho, Montana, Virginia

States whose bills have passed through the House or Senate:

Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee

States whose legislators have introduced drone legislation:

Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia

States that have created drone task forces:

Alaska, Indiana

States where drone legislation was proposed, but not addressed during the legislative session:

New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Washington, Wyoming

The other 11 states and Washington, D.C. have not introduced any drone legislation.

Drones by the numbers

31 — states that have active drone legislation

4 — states that have laws on drones (Florida, Virginia, Idaho and Montana)

30,000 — number of commercial drones in the air by 2015 (FAA estimate)

70,000 — number of jobs generated by commercial drone use (FAA estimate)

15 to 45 minutes — the amount of time most drones can last in the air

$300 to $5 million — the price range of a drone

1,428 — number of drone permits the FAA has issued since 2007

327 — number of active drone permits in the United States

35 percent — proportion of drone permits believed to be held by the Pentagon

25 — number of members of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists

76 — number of countries that have drones

- Lilly Chapa

What exactly is a drone?

Technically, any aircraft that is controlled remotely is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone. Most modern drones are controlled by Global Positioning System-based commands programmed through a computer. Drones can cost anywhere from $300 to $5 million and can be as small as a dinner plate or as large as a Cessna. They can be equipped with a variety of tools, including cameras, GPS trackers, infrared sensors and weapons.

Eighty-one public entities have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for the special license required to fly drones. The bulk of the applicants are from universities, NASA, environmental groups and police departments. The FAA has established guidelines for drones. For example, it’s illegal to fly drones above 400 feet, beyond line of sight or over populated areas.

The relatively low cost and precision of drones make them excellent tools for any journalist, said Matthew Schroyer, who founded the Professional Society of Drone Journalists in 2011. A kit of a drone that can take high-resolution pictures can cost as low as $1,000 — a fraction of the cost of a news helicopter.

The drones most likely to be used for newsgathering will have a 20 minute battery life and are susceptible to wind and rain, Schroyer said. They are a far cry from the heavy-duty Predator drones used to fire missiles in Afghanistan, he said.

“The word ‘drone’ has come to mean a weapon of war,” Schroyer said. “We’re trying to get away from that and change the conversation.”

The drones used by hobbyists and universities are built from scratch and programmed manually, often with guidance from drone communities such as the website DIYDrones.com. Matthew Waite, the director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln drone journalism program, said drone kits are becoming more popular and that $300 novelty drones can even be purchased at retail stores. The tricky part, he said, is learning how to fly them.

“You will crash, you will break it and you will be replacing parts pretty quickly,” Waite said.