Robot Reporters

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

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)

Matt Waite of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Drone Journalism Lab considers the practical — and ethical — implications of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reporting. Waite spoke with Associate Editor Rebecca Maksel in October.

Air & Space: You established the Drone Journalism Lab in 2011. How did you pitch it to the university?

Waite: I had gone to a digital mapping conference in San Diego earlier that summer. I saw a company there called Gatewing, and they were selling a product called the X100. It’s this fully autonomous aerial mapping platform, maybe 4-foot-by-3-foot plane, that has a camera in the bottom of it. They had this wonderful production demonstration video where you watched somebody take it out in the field and pull out a tablet computer that had a map on it, and you drew an area [on the map] that you wanted it to fly and photograph. And you’d say I’m going to take off here, and I’m going to land here, and you plugged that flight plan into the airplane, and off it went. No pilot required. It just went and did it.

A few minutes later it lands, and you pull the memory card out of the camera, and it would stitch those images together, and do a composite, high-resolution image of the ground. And I saw that, and I went, Oh, wow. There’s Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there’s Joplin, Missouri, there’s the next city that’s going to be destroyed by some kind of massive weather event. I ran up to the guy on the sales floor, and I handed him my wallet and said, “I’m taking that one.” And he said, “Well, sorry, they’re $65,000 each, and they’re also completely illegal in the United States.”

I’m like…gah…so close! My imagination was just on fire at that point. So I started looking into things, and I found there was this do-it-yourself community out there called DIY Drones, of people building and flying their own recreational, autonomous aircraft. The FAA was at the time considering changing the rules, so I thought, well if these things are all going on, then I think it’s entirely reasonable to believe that one day journalists could use UAVs to do journalism.

So I went to the Dean of the College of Journalism here (at the time), a guy named Gary Kebbel, and I said, “I think this is going to be a thing, and I think we ought to build a lab here.” And he said, “Cool.” And that was pretty much it. So we tried to find grant funds, and space, and figure out what it is we would pitch to funders as to what we were going to do.

The idea of using aircraft [to photograph] images from the air of a mass disaster is something that journalists have been doing for a very long time. Where UAVs change the equation is that now many people can do it—and for a lot less money.

Due to the current FAA restrictions, what are the practical applications for drone journalism—or can you even have drone journalism at this point in the U.S.?

Waite: Nope. Straightforward no. Well, I shouldn’t say that. You can’t have professional drone journalism. When I say “professional,” I mean: If I happen to have a camera onboard [an RC aircraft] and take some pictures, I’m more than welcome to have those pictures, but the moment that I sell them to somebody, or take money for them, it becomes a commercial purpose. And the FAA does consider journalism to be a commercial purpose.

For the time being, there is no widespread way for drone journalism to go on. That’s not to say it’s not happening. Because we have things like the Internet and YouTube, people who fly remote control aircraft have put videos of things that they’ve done up on the Internet, and just said, “Here, world, have it.”

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