The Drone Journalism Lab Releases Operations Manual For Free

A DJI Phantom 4 drone hovers over a University of Nebraska-Lincoln farm during a demonstration flight at the first ever Drone Journalism Boot Camp.
A DJI Phantom 4 drone hovers over a University of Nebraska-Lincoln farm during a demonstration flight at the first ever Drone Journalism Boot Camp.

In response to the Federal Aviation Administration drone guidelines formally taking effect this past August, the Drone Journalism Lab decided to release its operations manual as an open source, Creative Commons-licensed document. The 23-page guidebook (found at dronejournalismlab.org) covers everything from how to conduct a preflight briefing to the ethical issues journalists should consider before flying a drone.

Matt Waite instructs a pair of journalists on how to fly a drone at the first ever Drone Journalism Boot Camp this past August. The boot camp, sponsored by the Google News Lab, trained 62 journalists on new FAA requirements for drone pilots and how those rules impact newsrooms.
Matt Waite instructs a pair of journalists on how to fly a drone at the first ever Drone Journalism Boot Camp this past August.

“The reaction to the manual has been great. We’ve heard from a dozen different news organizations that are using it exactly as we had hoped—a starting place for their own internal policies and procedures,” said Matt Waite, a professor of practice in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications and the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We only know about the ones who reach out to us which is the great and terrible thing about giving something away. People can do as they wish with it and there’s no strings attached, so our ability to track it is limited.”

Under Part 107 of the FAA Regulations, the operator of a drone is required to be at least 16 years old, proficient in English and pass a test “that includes knowledge of airspace, airspace operating requirements and the use of aeronautical charts” as well as other key points.

Waite’s manual defines three key roles in each drone flight—the pilot, the observer and the journalist—with the pilot being the only federally required position. The role of the observer is to inform the pilot if something enters the area and is of concern, while the journalist is there to ensure everything needed for the story is being captured.

The legalization of drone journalism comes after a nearly five yearlong journey for Waite, who originally founded the Drone Journalism Lab in November 2011. Less than two years after its founding, he received a cease-and-desist order from the FAA.

The journalistic benefits of drones, especially for disaster coverage, was something Waite recognized almost immediately when he fell upon a company  selling them at a digital mapping conference in San Diego in 2011. At the time, Waite had recently left the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) as a reporter covering hurricanes and other natural disasters.

A DJI Phantom 4 controller sits awaiting a connection to the drone before a demonstration flight at a University of Nebraska-Lincoln farm at the first ever Drone Journalism Boot Camp.
A DJI Phantom 4 controller sits awaiting a connection to the drone before a demonstration flight.

“Having been a newspaper reporter on the ground at tornadoes that destroyed homes and lives for miles, or hurricanes that were hundreds of miles wide, it is really hard in the economy of words that you have in a story to tell it with any impact,” Waite said. “A drone, rising just a hundred feet off the ground, will do so much more, so much faster, than a writer could ever do.”

However, Waite cautioned journalists moving forward to avoid the temptation of seeing drones as merely a toy.

“Under Part 107 you are a federally licensed pilot and considered as such by the FAA, and you need to take your responsibility for the aircraft and everyone around it seriously. If newsrooms start pressuring employees to do unsafe things, you’re going to see your first drone based wrongful termination lawsuits,” Waite said. “The first journalist to hurt someone with a drone is going to be an international news story, and not the good kind. Don’t be that person. Don’t be that newsroom.”

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