DRONE JOURNALISM, IT'S NOT SCIENCE FICTION
“Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as “drones,” have gained media attention over the last several years with much of the focus centering on their military uses and their emerging role in newsgathering. News organizations, journalists, and private citizens have employed UAVs to capture and share breaking news, to provide glimpses of natural disasters that would otherwise be too hazardous for journalists to obtain, and to offer unique perspectives that enrich news storytelling. At the same time, media scholars have emphasized the need to better understand the privacy and ethical concerns surrounding UAVs. Legal restrictions to and implications of their use have been relatively unexplored." (1)
The College of Journalism and Mass Communications (CoJMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln established a Drone Journalism Lab in November 2011 as part of a broad digital journalism and innovation strategy. The lab was started by Professor Matt Waite as a way to explore how drones could be used for reporting.
In the lab, students and faculty build drone platforms, use them in the field and research the ethical, legal and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft to do journalism.
Water Today sent Matt Waite a series of question. Here is a transcription of the email exchange.
This series is brought to you in part by Aerobotika - UAV training and Consulting
Water Today - One of the main aspects of your drone journalism lab is researching the ethical, legal and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft to do journalism. Can you give us some examples of the issues you have identified?
Waite -Honestly I think the big one that a lot of people don’t think about is safety. When you put a flying object with rapidly spinning blades in the air, you’re now responsible for the safety of those around you, in the air and on the ground. A lot of the ethical issues are obvious — we don’t shoot pictures into people’s windows with long telephoto lenses, so we’re not going to start with drones and things like that — but the safety issues are deep and complex. I’ve heard from dozens of people who want to use them to cover protests, and I ask them what happens when the device runs out of batteries over the crowd that they really want to fly over, and you can see the realization strike that they’ve just hurt someone. So those safety issues are front and center when it comes to regulatory and legal issues, not to mention insurance issues. A lot of our ground based ethics apply pretty easily to flying cameras, but we haven’t had to deal with aviation regulations and the like before.
Water Today - Can you tell us the process you had to go through to get a certificate of authorization, or a COA?
Waite - Well, the COA process is a sad story because we started out by doing a story, and then got a letter from the FAA telling us to stop. They said we had to have a COA, and told us all about the process, and what we had to do, and while we were doing that, the agency’s lawyers changed the rules. They decided that universities were applying for COAs for things they were not supposed to be for, so they defined them only as aviation research or fulfilling a core government function, like law enforcement, or agriculture. Education was specifically not a core government function, these lawyers said, and the FAA told us that journalism and journalism education really wasn’t a core function. Which, as a fan of the First Amendment, I agree with. But that meant we couldn’t get a COA. So that meant we had to approach the FAA as a commercial user, through what is called the Section 333 process.
The Section 333 process is really just a list of federal aviation rules you don’t have to comply with because you’re flying a drone, not a manned aircraft. The real kicker of the 333 process is that the pilot in command of the drone — the one with the sticks in their hands — has to be a licensed pilot. Since there is no drone license, that means you have to be a manned aircraft pilot. So, in May, I started working on a sport-light pilot’s license, which will allow me to 1) fly small two-seat airplanes and 2) get a 333 exemption for the college so we can go use drones to do stories. It will mean students can’t fly, but they can program the autopilot and control the cameras independently. I’ll just have to stand there with the controls. I should have my license in the next few weeks and our 333 paperwork should take a few months.
Water Today - The use of drones is regulated by the FAA in the US, yet Nevada for one is looking to pass Bill AB239 a Bill setting privacy restrictions on private and police use of drones. Are there such Bills or regulations in other states and would these contravene or add to the FAA regulations?
Waite - Nearly every state is either considering, has considered, some have passed, and many will pass, some form of drone regulations. It’s going to create a crazy-quilt of regulations across the country, and in many cases the laws will fall on First Amendment challenges. But something most people don’t realize is that all this happened before, with manned aircraft. In the early days of flight, states moved far faster to regulate airspace and airplanes than the federal government did. The federal government for years thought the states should be the ones regulating it. And the same crazy-quilt system appeared, and later the federal government asserted control over the airspace and the system we have now was born. But it didn’t just arrive like that, and it took years to evolve, so all of this has happened before and appears to be happening again. Except this time, the issue of who controls airspace was already known, so I can’t see this ending well for state regulation of the air.
Water Today - Canada is said to have permissive approach to regulating commercial drones which has made it a world leader in the burgeoning field but is also said to be putting the public at risk. Where should the line be drawn is your opinion?
Waite - Well, in some respect I think Canada gets a little too much credit for their lax rules. Yes, they made it so you can fly a small drone pretty easily, but the list of restrictions you have to comply with to do it is pretty harrowing. You have to be several kilometers from the nearest farmstead or group of buildings. Now, there are lots of places in Canada where you can do that (Nebraska too), but that leaves out anywhere where there are people.
If you’re a journalist, your work is primarily about people. Now, to praise my neighbors to the north, it has been easier to get permission from Transport Canada than it has elsewhere, so even if you want to fly nearer to people, it’s more possible than elsewhere, but it’s not easy. And it’s not as if you get an SFOC from Transport Canada and you have carte blanche to buzz children’s birthdays or fly down runways at Toronto International. The fear of putting the public at risk is far higher than it should be given the actual risks, but that’s because this is all new. It’s something we haven’t seen before. And it does make some people uncomfortable. So our relative risk levels are all wrong.
Water Today - The use of drones in water journalism would be very helpful to locate line breaks, contamination causes, floods etc perhaps before the plant would.. What are your thoughts on this, does
catching say a person illegally dumping toxins, should that trump someone's right to privacy both from law enforcement and journalists?
Waite - I wrote a book about wetlands destruction in Florida — Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss — and it used satellite imagery to look at how many acres of wetlands were wiped out by development. A drone would have been awesome. I think there’s a pretty compelling case that the public’s interest in water — the source of life — outweighs an individual’s right to privacy if they’re dumping chemicals into that water. If they’re just on a beach enjoying their day, obviously they have a right to privacy. But I think when it comes to water, the compelling interest on the part of the public is substantial.
This is Part 1 of a series on drones.
Part 2 - Journalism, drones and Canada. Can we fly together?
Part 3 - A human pilot talks UAVs, drone regs and drone schools
Part 4 - Drones more than just cool - All about sensors
1. “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Opportunities, Barriers, and the Future of ‘Drone Journalism'- Avery E. Holton; Sean Lawson; Cynthia Love. Journalism Practice, December 2014