Will Drone Journalism Ever Get Off the Ground?

Lisa Park   April 25, 2012

A quadcopter hovering. (photo by esciphul)

“It’s interesting that drone journalism has captured our imagination, when it’s cell phone journalism that’s changed the game,” noted Chris Anderson, Wired magazine’s Editor in Chief, at a recent Hacks/Hackers event on the subject of “Drone Journalism: Reporting from Above.” He’s right. Nothing like a tricked-out, high-tech, whirring object that can fly — and has a multi-thousand-dollar price tag — to thrill an audience. Especially when the audience comprises software developers, journalists, content strategists and a few hardware folks, all eager for the possibility of obtaining shiny, new content — the breaking story. (Just in case you’re wondering, drones are unmanned aircraft either controlled autonomously by computers in the drone or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground.)

Of course, any journalist — or Joe Schmoe for that matter — armed with a smartphone and Internet access can and successfully has delivered valuable and vital news almost as soon as it’s happening. Witness reporting from the Arab Spring and other recent events hit social networks such as Facebook and Twitter ahead of leading news outlets. The overall impact of this ever-increasing connectivity has been positive, in that it’s given voice to and shed light on parts of the world that were once isolated and disenfranchised.

But back to drones. Will they play a part in new media’s future? I’m thinking the odds are slim to none. Drones are not only costly — with pricetags running up to tens of thousands of dollars — but they can also pose a serious danger to the public if you don’t know how to build and/or operate them. Anderson, who’s also the founder of 3D Robotics, an open source robotics company, and website DIY Drones, warned, “Before you get too excited [about drones’ potential, be aware that] the blades can whack off your fingers. Drones are flying lawnmowers.”

Matt Waite, a former journalist and currently a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, agrees. And yet, like Anderson, he has embraced a possible future with drones used for civilian purposes, having launched a drone journalism lab at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications last year. Waite says he had his a-ha moment when he witnessed a demo at a digital mapping conference in San Diego. The demo blew him away, and opened his eyes to drones being “perfect for any biblical event.” He believes they have real public-purpose applications, particularly in the area of post-disaster coverage: “Imagine what could have been if we had drones following Hurricane Katrina. We could have changed public perception.”

He has a point. Drones, which are unmanned, can fly into the aftermath of a natural disaster without risking the pilot’s life. According to Tyler Brown, who builds drones at Occucopter, you can fly them extremely close to the terrain, getting footage that you couldn’t get via any other aircraft.

The other cool thing is that anyone and their mother can make drones. “Something that was once military and industrial is now within [our] reach,” said Anderson. “We’re having a homebrew computing club moment.”

But here’s the thing: Never mind that drones have a limited battery life of around 10 minutes—meaning you’d have to have a bunch of them to effectively cover a lot of ground. The real problem is that you can’t fly them for commercial purposes—at all. So unless you’re a hobbyist flying them for fun below 400 feet, within visual line of sight and away from populated areas, you’re out of luck when it comes to getting a license to put a drone in the air.

Besides the fact that they’re flat-out illegal for commercial use, Jennifer Lynch, attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes that sooner or later the issue of what’s considered in or out of bounds in terms of surveillance via drones will come to a court of law. And based on recent judgments favoring the privacy of individuals (California v. Ciraolo, Kyllo v US, etc.), drones will likely lose the battle.

Is this then a lost opportunity for content creators and consumers of that content? Anderson doesn’t think so. He says attaching a video camera to a balloon and lofting it in the air to cover demonstrations will do just as well. I wholeheartedly agree: Folks will always find other ways to get and create content, if not with drones then with smartphones or some other handy device or contraption.

And so it seems that the rise of civilian drones — with all of their geek appeal — and the lively discourse around them have been mostly about sparking the imagination of a wide cross-section of hacks and hackers. Never mind that drones and new media will probably never mix. It’s kind of like playing the lotto—even if it never comes to fruition, it’s fun to think about the possibilities. Isn’t it?

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One Response

  1. Tony says:

    It seems that events like the Arab Spring would have been perfect venues for this since public safety was already at great risk with all the bullets and mortar shells flying around. Losing a finger from a drone that could provide an accurate account of the events is worth it.

    I imagine Anderson Cooper, or at least his camera man, would have rather been flying a drone from a hotel balcony instead of taking rocks and fists to the head. In this case, CNN already has the budget and embedded journalists on the scene. They were only missing a drone from their arsenal of “virtual walls” and the like.

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