Drones Doing the Job for Journalists

Recently in Poland, Russia and the United States reports consisting of airborne images have been published. An inexpensive technology is being tried out by many journalists. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also known as drones are allowing reporters to gather information they couldn’t access before.

Matt Waite is a professor at the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, U.S., who has started a Drone Journalism Lab to experiment with small UAVs as tools supporting the work of journalists.

His idea of using drones in reporting dates back to 2005 when he was working on an investigative series of stories about wetlands being turned into shopping malls and gas stations which was contrary to what the government was saying was supposed to happen. A drone could have helped in demonstrating that. In summer 2010 Mr. Waite saw a Gatewing X100 at a digital mapping conference in San Diego, California and was amazed by the potentials of using an UAV to take on demand aerial imagery. So he talked to the dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and started researching those potentials. The results have been published on the lab’s Tumblr blog.

Together with the fact that by the end of 2011 Mr. Waite’s new Parrot AR Drone drone crashed. “I need to learn to not crash it as much as I have,” he says. But these small aircrafts are actually so cheap it is still all right if the man controlling them commits an error, for a reasonable amount of money one can replace the broken parts. And it is even easier if one is playing with a DIY UAV.

“I can put a drone in the air for a couple of hundred dollars and I don’t have to spend any more money after that couple of hundred dollars to keep flying it. While a helicopter, say like a television news station’s here in the United States, that helicopter is a several million dollar aircraft and it requires a trained and experienced and skilled pilot to fly it and it costs thousands of dollars an hour to fly. So they’re exceedingly expensive and many television stations here in the U.S. have got rid of theirs as budgets have shrunk and advertising revenues have shifted around on them. So I think this in a way kind of re-opens the opportunities for journalists to tell stories from the air. The other thing is that it doesn’t take an incredible amount of training to be able to fly one of these things. And between the cost and the ease of use and the portability I think it creates more opportunity to do aerial borne reporting for more people than just a helicopter does. But in the end the end product is not all that dissimilar.”

According to Wired, Tim Pool and Sam Shapiro have been using a Parrot AR Drone (the same type that Matt Waite is using at the Drone Journalism Lab) to develop a cheap solution for citizen journalists to do live streaming from protests. Now they are aiming at a production of video stream capable drones for $350.

In late April, 2011 a violent tornado outbreak hit the Southern and Eastern parts of the United States causing catastrophic destruction especially in Alabama. An unmanned aerial vehicle was used to demonstrate the devastated city of Tuscaloosa to the readers of The Daily. In November a group in Poland used a RoboKopter to record images of an independence day protest, in December another group took photos from an UAV flying above the river next to Bolotnaya Square in Moscow during the protests against the falsification of election results.

Mr. Waite has been working as an investigative reporter for twelve years before becoming a professor at the university. He is also known as the web developer to the Pulitzer Prize winning site Politifact. He emphasizes that from an investigative standpoint the use of drones is interesting when the journalist has to collect information.

“So let’s say there is a toxic chemical spill near a city and the government has shut down access to the area. To be able to fly over that and get images and some data from it would be a really powerful thing. Get kind of an extent of the area, see what is going on and layer that with other environmental data, look for environmentally sensitive lands or populations or water; where these spilled chemicals going to go. There is all kinds of data about soils and ground water and all kinds of things that you can add and start answering questions that you had.”

At the moment flying drones in the U.S. national airspace is allowed to citizens by holding an Experimental Category Special Airworthiness Certificate and to public entities such as universities or law enforcement by holding a Certificate of Waiver/Authorization (COA). According to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fact sheet as of December, 2010 there were 273 active COAs. The agency issues the certificates for a specified time period in a defined airspace with special provisions to each operation.

Meanwhile some areas are restricted to public use because of military operations such as testing drones in rural areas; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has published a report drawing attention to a new proposal of regulation expected in January to be published by the FAA that may allow law enforcement agencies to deploy drones extensively for surveillance in urban areas.

Jay Stanley a senior policy analyst at the ACLU says their recommendations to restrict law enforcement use of UAVs are extremely important since the U.S. privacy laws are not strong enough to protect citizens from the pervasive use of new technologies. Mr. Stanley, however, finds journalists using drones an independent check on what the government is doing.

“We think that it’s a good thing when individuals and the press watch the government but we don’t think it’s a good thing when the government watches individuals and the press. It should not watch its citizens unless it has specific evidence that somebody is involved in wrongdoing. It shouldn’t be watching people if it doesn’t have reasonable belief overall of a wrongdoing. But the government should be watched all the time.”

Both Mr. Stanley and Mr. Waite are concerned about the misuse by any drone operator or tabloid reporter but they agree on the fact that the predictable misuse is not a reason to ban this technology. “I think you can’t immediately shut down a technological advancement because of what you think people are going to do, how people are going to misuse it,” says Matt Waite.

The professor assumes the extensive use of the most developed autonomous drones by journalists in the national airspace is many years away. But definitely that is the direction where things may evolve posing many new questions to journalists about the use of technology: “I think that we [at the Drone Journalism Lab] are uniquely qualified because the way that we are going to learn what’s a good use is by doing these things and through experimenting here in the lab we are going to have a pretty good idea of what the capabilities of these things are. Just as what an ethical or an unethical use is.”

Photo: Ridus News Agency