Drones. They come in all sizes and prices. They come as toys for eager children or as killing machines for the military. They come indie-styled from DIY enthusiasts or at the ready from specialised companies. They are, in short, coming. But are they coming for journalists too? Will the new generation of journalists live in an era of drone journalism?
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Depending on the model, drones can be controlled remotely or they may be autonomous, buzzing across the skies, directed by GPS. With the relentless advancement in technology, drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are now fitted with cameras and numerous sensors. They are so powerful in fact that people have rapidly found ingenious ways to put them to full use. Drones are used to monitor across vast expanses of land such as agricultural farms and wildlife reserves. The police uses drones for reconnaissance missions or for border security. Even Hollywood covertly makes use of drones in its evergreen quest for more jaw-dropping and immersive scenes.
The benefits for journalists are evident too, especially for those who are in the field, like many science journalists. Journalists can use drones to report on disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. Having an above-the-ground view may give journalists a better perspective of the extent of a disaster. By making use of sensors attached to drones, journalists can measure numerous parameters such as radiation levels in inaccessible areas. An environment journalist may also be keen to use drones to collect specimen such as polluted water samples while an exploring nature journalist can use them as communication relays so that they can touch base when reporting from remote areas.
Drone journalism appears to make so much sense that two universities in the US have already incorporated drone use in their journalism programs. The Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska and the Missouri Drone Journalism Program at the University of Missouri both teach journalism students how to make the most of what drones have to offer when reporting a story. They also teach students how to fly drones, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and ethics.
But does drone journalism really have a future? Currently, practically no one uses drones for journalism in the US. This is because the FAA determined that drone flying for commercial purposes (journalism is considered a commercial purpose) is illegal. Drones, unfortunately, are also getting a pretty bad reputation. Their reported use by the US military have caused an estimated 3,000 casualties, including civilians, in countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. And apparently, drones are central in the targeted killing campaign waged by the US in those countries.
Closer to home, important ethical questions have been raised about the use of drones. While the vantage view that drones provide may be a definite advantage in many scenarios, it can also easily be abused, for example by invading people’s privacy. And many people are concerned about this. State Representative Casey Guernsey opposes drone journalism and is quoted by the Gateway Journalism Review as saying: “If we are moving into an age of news agencies using drones to collect information on private citizens, I’m definitely concerned about that.” There is also a safety issue since the possibility that drones collide with other drones, helicopters or even planes, while small, still exists.
In spite of those challenges, the drone movement appears to have gathered too much momentum to be stopped. The DIY drone space is huge with big players such as DIYDrones, started by Wired’s former editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, in the forefront. Drones are also becoming more affordable. Fast Company recently reviewed the $700 DJI Phantom UAV and found that the drone was capable of taking “professional-quality aerial video within minutes.” (The DJI Phantom UAV is also capable of flying up to 1000 feet above ground. Just saying.) And while pricetags of more professional drones may come with an additional zero, they may still be more affordable than the alternative: getting a helicopter.
Actually, operating drones for commercial purposes, which includes journalistic purposes, will probably become legal as early as 2015. The FAA approval of six UAV testing sites seems to be evidence. Perhaps more telling of the imminent drone coming is the FAA estimate that within 10 years, about 30,000 commercial and government drones will be in the US sky, with the industry projected to swell to $90 billion.
So, yes, drones do look like they are on their way! Hence why journalists need to start addressing the legitimate ethical concerns raised by many right now. Matthew Schroyer, a data journalist and founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalista (PSDJ), told the Guardian that “we can meet the challenge together as a group if we abide by codes of conduct.” The PSDJ dedicated to “establishing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism” has paved the way to a discussion about the ethics of drone journalism by coming up with the drone journalism code of ethics. It stipulates that a journalist should look at newsworthiness, safety, sanctity of law and public spaces, privacy and traditional journalism ethics when using drones.
Will drones revolutionise journalism though? Probably not. While drones will open new arrays and new doors for journalists, they are tools, just like cameras, voice recorders or smartphones, and journalists will have to learn to use them to report better stories. Of course, since drones are super cool, learning to use them may well be very fun indeed.