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University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Matt Waite (left) and Carrick Detweiler use a Falcon 8 UAV to document the effects of drought on the Platte River. (Ben Kreimer, Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Robot Reporters

Will UAVs become as indispensable for journalists as notepads and digital recorders?

There was a man in Dallas, Texas, who was flying his remote controlled airplane and had a camera onboard it, and he was flying next door to a meat packing plant. His camera caught images of the plant dumping pig blood into a nearby creek, which then flowed into the Trinity River, which then became part of the city of Dallas’ drinking water supply.

When he saw what he had, he turned it over to environmental authorities, and he put the images out there for anybody to see. He may not have realized that he was doing drone journalism, but to me, that is in the highest and best traditions of investigative reporting. If a newsroom had gotten a tip that that was going on, the only way that they could get that was to fly something next door and get a picture of it—they would have done it. That’s totally within the purview of investigative journalism.

There are other examples that you mostly see overseas, of people using small, multi-rotor helicopters to cover protests—in Moscow late last year, and another one in Warsaw, Poland.

That one has been taken down from so many sites. You can still see it on DefenseTech.com, but everywhere else it has been pulled. I wondered what sort of repercussions there’d been.

Waite: It’s a good question. At least here in the U.S., what I have heard, is that generally, if you run afoul of these rules you get a phone call from the FAA, and they say, “knock it off” in so many words. And most people have done just that.

The Daily—the Murdoch News Corp.-owned iPad news organization—hired a company that had a multi-rotor helicopter, put a camera on it, and produced some really stunning videos from Tuscaloosa and from, I think Joplin. They put those on the Daily, and the FAA called them up and [told them to stop]. Because the Daily is subscription-based, and the addition of the videos could be used to induce people to subscribe, they thought it crossed the line into a commercial purpose.

I’ve heard of realtors in Southern California, Los Angeles in particular, using UAV companies to fly over multi-million dollar properties that they’re trying to sell, gorgeous, sweeping shots that look like they were filmed for a movie. And the FAA has told them to knock it off as well. That too is a commercial enterprise. I think you’re going to see more and more of this as the technology matures, and people realize that they can do something that is financially in their best interest. They may not be completely aware of what the rules are right now.

Isn’t there also a rule that you can’t fly near people?

Waite: I think the wording is that you can’t fly [a drone] in built-up areas. Which is to say near a lot of houses or near people. So that’s tough. Certainly for a lot of journalism, and certainly with realtors, and people like that trying to use them—I’ve said before that the recreational rules right now are: you can’t fly over 400 feet; you can’t be out of the line of sight of the operator; you can’t fly near built-up areas; and you can’t use it for commercial purposes. If it were just the first three, I think drone journalism would be going on right now. The commercial purposes one is the one that’s just…you can’t get around that one. There’s nothing you can do about that one.

There is journalism to be done where there aren’t people, or where there are few people. Stories about the environment, stories about wildlife, stories about rural areas. I live in the Great Plains, so agriculture is a big thing out here. So is the weather. If a severe storm blows through an area, it could potentially do millions and millions of dollars of damage to crops at certain times of the year. We’re going through the worst drought since the 1950s right now. Those are all stories that could be told through the eyes of a UAV, and if I were at a commercial news organization I would be thinking about it. But because of the commercial purposes exemption, it’s just impossible.

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