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)

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Waite: Most multi-rotor helicopters have the same amount of flight time, which is right about 15 to 20 minutes. I think we were getting between 13 and 15 minutes. It was an exceptionally calm day, almost shockingly calm for out here on the Great Plains, and beautiful and sunny that day.

Until the FAA comes out with rules for commercial use of drones [Sept 2015], will the Lab focus more on examining the ethical issues of drone journalism?

Waite: What I’ve envisioned for the lab is almost a 50-50 split between [that and] the practical questions of how you could cover news with the drone: what kind of weather can you fly in, how windy can it be before you have to say no, how much of a camera can these things lift, what kind of performance can you expect, what kind of reliability can you expect. These are all very practical questions that there’s almost zero information about within newsrooms.

I think that this gap in time between now and September 2015 is a gift in a lot of ways, because this may be among the first times that we are able to think about the use of a technology before we actually use it. We have time now to think about the ethics of using a UAV to cover news. I should say this goes well beyond journalism. These are questions that we as a society need to consider. What are our expectations of privacy? Currently the courts say above 500 feet that’s the national airspace, and that’s a public street. So if I’m flying in the national airspace and I see you nude sunbathing in your backyard…well that’s too bad, it’s no different than I’m standing on the street and I can see you nude sunbathing in your backyard.

Is that what we as a society think is a reasonable expectation? Do we have other ideas? Obviously the FAA as a safety organization has to consider how to let these things be used, and at the same time keep us safe. So what are those rules?

From my journalistic-centric worldview, there are a lot of advocates who want the FAA to approve each individual use of a UAV. Basically you have to file a flight plan for each use with the FAA, and they have to approve or disapprove of it.

That would never work.

Waite: For a lot of reasons! But let me give you one that immediately jumped into my head. That puts the FAA in a position of approving or disapproving of the journalism that I do. And that is Prior Restraint. That has been repeatedly forbidden by the courts, and is expressly forbidden by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom […] of the press.” So, if somebody at the FAA can say, “No, I don’t want you to do that story,” they can deny me a permit to fly on that particular day at that particular time at that particular place, and that smacks of prior restraint. I don’t think a lot of people are considering First Amendment rights.

What are your student researchers working on?

Waite: We have a $50,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and have been working to get that in place so we can go and buy our own gear. In the meantime, given that we’re solidly into the semester here, they’ve been working on gathering research materials. We’ve been looking at civil aviation laws in other countries with respect to unmanned aerial vehicles. We’ve been looking at the history of journalistic technologies. When a new tool comes along that journalists use, what happens? There’s a pretty interesting and consistent history there of everybody freaking out and declaring the death of privacy and the death of public life, and then we kind of figure out it really isn’t that scary, and we kind of incorporate this technology into our lives and we move on.

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