The U.S. government is making it very difficult for journalists to use drones. That's a problem.

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
Quadcopter drone journalism
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The "TBS Discovery" quadcopter, one of the drones used by Scott Pham's drone journalism program at the University of Missouri.

Unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs, or “drones” in popular parlance — are still largely associated with military strikes. But it’s become clear that non-weaponized drones, which exist in a dizzying variety of shapes and sizes, have many other potential uses: food delivery, lifeguarding at the beach, even search and rescue.

One of the most compelling emerging uses for drones is journalism: A relatively cheap means of capturing aerial footage could enable different kinds of storytelling, and pictures that could not otherwise be captured. And a couple of very forward-thinking university programs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Missouri have been engaged in hands-on exploration that very topic.

Recently, however, the Federal Aviation Administration informed both programs that they were not in compliance with current rules governing UAV use, and would have to alter their operations — in ways that will make their mission a lot more difficult.

That’s a shame. Both programs have already produced compelling, original drone-enabled work, and have done it thoughtfully, responsibly, cautiously, and without harming a soul. Moreover, with the FAA set to issue a new and more comprehensive set of UAV guidelines in 2015, sorting out the best practices, potential pitfalls, and various legal and ethical issues surrounding the way journalists use drones isn’t some gee-whiz exercise. It’s a crucial undertaking that ought to be encouraged, not set back.

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The "TBS Discovery" quadcopter, one of the drones used by Scott Pham's drone journalism program at the University …

Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab was founded in 2011, after professor Matthew Waite encountered impressive UAVs at a 2011 digital mapping conference and realized they could be highly useful tools for covering certain kinds of news stories — the aftermath of a hurricane, for instance. He quickly learned that existing drone rules were too restrictive for many of the uses he could imagine; but the lab, with a Knight Foundation grant, allowed him and a few students to start experimenting in anticipation of the expected 2015 rule revisions.

“We have been extremely cautious,” Waite told me. “I didn’t want to screw this up for everyone else.”

Some of the work they did was technical, some focused on regulatory issues. And, in 2012, they produced a couple of terrific video reports about a Nebraska drought that incorporated useful footage captured by a drone (and about how the UAV itself was used).

Similarly, at the University of Missouri this past fall, students in a new Drone Journalism Program used UAVs to help create reports about how water from the Missouri River is used in fracking in North Dakota and how controlled burns are used in prairie management. That program, founded by Scott Pham, is a partnership among the Missouri School of Journalism, the University of Missouri Information Technology program and the university-licensed public radio station KBIA.

Both programs essentially operated under extremely conservative interpretations of current FAA guidance for non-commercial UAV hobbyists. They avoided populated areas; flew over public land, or private land with the permission of landowners; and kept the vehicles 400 feet and within the sight of their operators. (Commercial drone use is basically not allowed at all until the 2015 guidelines are announced.) That recent FAA letter, however, said that the schools needed to comply with a different standard, for “public entities.” This requires a Certificate of Authorization for any outdoor flight — a 60-business-day process, at best. That makes producing even a timely feature pretty difficult, and doing so in the context of an academic semester wildly impractical.

Waite said he was “a little surprised” by the order, and Pham commented that it’s “disappointing that we won’t be able to do a lot of the things we were trying to do,” but both sound philosophical about having to recalibrate, and neither offered criticism of the FAA. Waite is looking for new grant money, hoping to involve students in the authorization process. Pham is working to offer a revised version of his class, now cancelled for the fall, next spring.


I don’t need FAA certification for anything I’m working on, so I don’t have to be as evenhanded as Waite and Pham: I think in exercising this blunt regulatory instrument, the agency has missed a real opportunity here. The fact is there’s plenty of unauthorized drone experimentation going on, and very little of it is as considered and transparent as what these programs have done. Just the other day, a UAV tumbled from the sky and into the stands at a bull-running event in Virginia, hitting one bystander in the face. Previously, the (now defunct) tablet publication The Daily deployed a drone to gather post weather-disaster footage, presumably in violation of the commercial-use ban.

The FAA can only react to such incidents after the fact. But with the Nebraska and Missouri programs, there’s a chance to work with responsible researchers, making it easier for them to set a good example while exploring serious issues. Instead, serious experimentation has been rewarded with fresh hurdles. (My call to the FAA hasn’t been returned, but a spokesperson told the Columbia Daily Tribune this is a “straightforward” case: “They have to comply with the same rules as everyone else.”)

The potential uses — and abuses — of UAVs are vast, and that’s precisely why the set of rules the FAA is supposed to forge by 2015 is so important. Until then we’re stuck in a weird limbo state that’s at odds with the fact that there are a lot of drones being used right now. Thus we need more intelligent examination of the technology and its implications, not more restrictions on such examination.

In that spirit, perhaps, the FAA letter has inspired Waite to try a new way of advancing the conversation. He’s just announced the first Drone Journalism Conference, scheduled for late October in Lincoln, Nebraska. “We’re bringing in experts on privacy, ethics, the law and journalism. We’re going to share what we know so others can learn and do their own research,” he wrote recently.

“And we’re going to do a demo … indoors.”

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