Drone journalism brings reporting into the future

2:19 pm Feb 19 - by Ashish Valentine – Technograph writer

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Matt Schroyer, a self-described drone journalist, stands by one of his drones. (Photo courtesy of Matt Schroyer)

    Types of drones
    GATEWING X100 | $65,000
    Capable of taking off, shooting thousands of high-quality photographs, landing on autopilot


    ASCTEC FALCON 8 | $25,000
    Contains an eight-rotor and has a GPS-controlled system


    PARROT AR | $300
    Controlled via common Apple or Android devices such as iPads

    Thanks to modern news media conditioning, whenever one hears the word “drone,” one invariably associates the word with military-operated wraiths of the night, waging covert warfare against terrorist groups. However, not all drones are weapons of war. The emerging field of drone journalism aims to use remote-controlled and autonomous robots to aid journalists in collecting information and in reporting the news.

    Drone and data journalist Matt Schroyer, who works on a National Science Foundation grant at the University of Illinois, is one of the people trying to make this theoretical field a reality.

    Schroyer works on an NSF grant called “EnLiST,” or Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Teaching and Learning, specifically within a program called “Drones for Schools,” which “teaches core science and engineering concepts behind unmanned aerial systems while high school students design, construct and operate their own drones to study and learn more about the environment.”

    Schroyer also founded The Professional Society of Drone Journalists at Dronejournalism.org, which offers “updates on the development of all facets of drone journalism, technical safety, and federal requirements which apply to sUAS (small Unmanned Aerial Systems) reporting, ethical standards for sUAS use in reporting, (and) Collaborative Peer Support – Interacting with PSDJ members, who may be researching similar applications.”

    The main advantage of using drones, for Schroyer, is “a more evidence-based approach to journalism. Getting beyond interviews and hearsay and actually getting to some data and evidence that journalists can use.”

    But Schroyer isn’t the only journalist interested in this field. University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Matt Waite founded a Drone Journalism Lab in November 2011. It explores ways drones could be used in reporting.

    Users of the lab, both students and faculty, can “build drone platforms, use them in the field and research the ethical, legal and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft to do journalism,” according to the lab’s website. The lab used a $25,000 drone to cover a drought in Nebraska called “one of the worst droughts in the nation’s history” by the Associated Press.

    The types of drones available sit in a wide range of prices and levels of sophistication. Examples of drones include: the $65,000 Gatewing X100, capable of taking off, shooting thousands of high-quality photographs and landing all on autopilot; the $25,000, eight-rotor, GPS-controlled AscTec Falcon 8; and the $300 Parrot AR.Drone, which can be controlled via common Apple or Android devices such as iPads.

    Using aerial drones capable of recording vast swathes of land raises legal and ethical issues. The foremost of these, according to Waite, is that it is illegal.

    While taking aerial video of unpopulated areas in Nebraska was within FAA regulations, the same cannot be said for drones that are either venturing above 400 feet without the same certifications used for civilian-carrying airplanes or recording populated areas.

    “There’s currently not a place in the FAA regulations for a viable commercial pursuit of drones,” including for journalism, according to Schroyer’s Blog, the Mental Munition Factory. “There is, however, a place for government and research institutions to use drones. That place is called a Certificate of Authorization, or COA (pronounced “koh-ah” in the industry).”

    While the use of drones in reporting is still not fully open, the FAA’s rules are changing. According to a report by The Washington Times, the agency will start granting commercial and personal licenses in 2015 and estimates that, by 2020, American skies could be home to as many as 30,000 drones.


    Image courtesy of Matt Schroyer. Above is an image of flight data collected from graduate student Matt Schroyer’s terrain-mapping drones.

    The possibility of aerial drones videotaping populated areas raises privacy concerns. According to a post on the American Civil Liberties Union website regarding drone use by law enforcement: “U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance. Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the government.”

    To prevent such violations and put in place an ethical framework before the field takes off, Schroyer has set up a Drone Journalism Code of Ethics Wiki at Dronejournalism.org, which, according to the website, should be viewed “as a layer of additional ethical considerations atop the traditional professional and ethical expectations of a journalist in the 21st century.”

    The code of ethics lists safety and privacy as added responsibilities of drone journalists in addition to traditional journalistic ethics. In regards to safety, the code tells drone journalists to “realize that potential for harm with their unmanned vehicle and take all possible measures to mitigate the odds of a crash.” It also notes that “the ability to take photographs from the sky makes the drones a powerful tool in the hands of a journalist. But the vantage point also offers the chance for abuse, especially in terms of privacy and safety.”

    The code also proposes a “Layered Approach to Drone Journalism Ethics.” Inspired by psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a model that sorted basic human needs such as food and shelter from more sophisticated ones such as esteem, love and belonging — the layered approach prioritizes certain values over others. At the very base is the newsworthiness criterion, which entails whether the information is worth the risks of using a drone. Immediately after come safety concerns, followed by the sanctity of the law, privacy and traditional journalistic ethics.

    Waite, on the other hand, responds by arguing that many popular privacy concerns surrounding drones are already addressed by commonly accepted technologies.

    He uses revealing photographs taken of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, as an example.

    “People first thought they were taken by a UAV and got upset about privacy concerns, but later discovered they were taken with a long telephoto lens,” he said. “So no drone, no ethical problem, right? Wrong. The issue isn’t whether or not the pictures were taken with a UAV, but rather that the pictures were a gross violation of privacy no matter how they were taken.”

    The legal and ethical concerns regarding drones are, according to Waite, part of a long history in the United States of privacy concerns over what would become commonly accepted technologies. One of the first examples of these technologies “goes back to the 1890s with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie, the first camera that could be taken out of the studio.”

    “People were writing about it saying that it would bring about the end of public life and that nothing would ever be private again,” Waite said. “But gradually, it all gets incorporated into our lives, and we move on.”

    While the use of drones in reporting does raise ethical and legal concerns, it also entails possible benefits. When news channels require aerial shots of locations, they frequently use anchors in helicopters to report on the situations.

    “Instead of paying for an entire helicopter, you could use a few $1,000 drones capable of taking multiple shots of the scene with much less required flight training,” Waite said.

    The emerging field of drone journalism promises cheaper, more effective means of reporting on current events. When discussing the prospects of drone journalism, Waite delivers a tease of the future: “We’re just getting started, so stay tuned because there’s much more cool stuff coming.”

    Tagged with: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, drone journalism, matt schroyer, national science foundation, enLiST, Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching and Learning, The Professional Society of Drone Journalists, dronejournalism.org, Matt Waite, university of nebraska-lincoln, kate middleton, kodak brownie, tag1

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