Eyes in the Sky: Drones Delivering News


By: Gretchen A. Peck

Eyes in the Sky: Drones Delivering News

The manufacturers of flying eyes in the sky prefer that you not call them drones. It seems the term has acquired a bad rep, thanks to the legacy of weaponized systems and the fear that they’ll become the next method for spying on U.S. citizens. The makers, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), prefer to use less colloquial terms, such as unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs).

“The association that lobbies for unmanned vehicles had a conference last year, and if you were part of the media and you wanted to access WiFi there, the password was ‘dontsaydrones.’ They absolutely hate that word,” said Matt Waite, professor and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“They know that the well has been poisoned, and the argument against the word is that it undersells the complexity of the technology. Drone makes it sound stupid, makes it sound less than it really is. I’m of the mind that the word ‘drone’ is here to stay, because it’s a single syllable, and no one is going to change a single-syllable word for ‘unmanned aerial systems,’ or ‘unmanned vehicles,’ or ‘remotely powered aircraft,’ which is my current favorite. But we’ve conflated the word ‘drone’ to mean everything from the $30 toy that’s the size of the palm of my hand or sits on my desk, to the $130 million Global Hawk, which is as big as a fighter plane and one of the most complicated aircraft systems on the planet. … What that does is open up the opportunity for anybody to apply whatever phobia, bias, and insecurity they want to the word.”

No matter what you call them, this seems certain: The United States has a love-hate relationship with drones, and the culture is influencing how quickly journalists will be able to legally leverage them.  

Drone Warfare

Why do journalists and newspapers even need drones? Why do they want them?

According to former photojournalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mike Levin, “[Drones] give you the ability to get an angle that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve without renting an expensive helicopter. And even then you’re limited to how low you can go, so you also need a super telephoto lens, and if you want to shoot video, you’ve got to be able to stabilize the camera. So you’re getting into lots of money to achieve an angle that you can now obtain for the price of a cheap DSLR camera.”

Drones may be on a similar path as imaging technologies that came before them. Sally French, social media editor for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network’s MarketWatch—and blogger at Drone Girl on WordPress—expects that they’ll follow a similar path to acceptance and ubiquity that cameras with telephoto lenses experienced. Once considered voyeuristic like spy gear, “Now you can buy a telephoto lens at Costco,” French said.

“I have friends who text me from concerts, saying, ‘Hey, there’s a drone here!’ You see them at other types of events, too,” French said. “People used to see them and say, ‘What’s that flying thing in the sky, a UFO?’ Now people say, ‘Oh, that’s a drone! I wonder where the operator is?’ ”

Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), said that all the panic about drones and a perceived loss of privacy is like history repeating.

“When George Eastman came out with the Brownie camera, there was a fear that privacy as they knew it back in the 1800s was going to come to an end,” he said. “There would be all kinds of people running around the streets, taking pictures of anything and everything. If you Google ‘the right to privacy’ from back then, you’d come across an essay by Brandeis—then, a Harvard Law student who would go on to become a Supreme Court Justice. It was called ‘The Right to Privacy,’ and if you read it, you’d think that the writing was about drones! It’s the same thing. The law will catch up to the technology; the only differences now are that technology is advancing at an exponentially faster rate.

“And back then, there weren’t the same kinds of stalking, harassment, and invasion of privacy laws that we have on the books now.”

“There are non-professional and non-commercial uses for drones all the time now,” said Seth Siditsky, director of multimedia at media group Advance Digital. “A drone is an affordable device that anybody can get—for the cost of a cell phone, at this point. Much like the explosion of a GoPro camera, which gives people a direct point-of-view perspective by attaching a camera to your body, these technologies are becoming commonplace. … And a drone is a valid and useful journalistic tool.”

Outside of journalism, UAVs are selling well and are being used for a variety of reasons—from recreation to surveillance.

On June 9, reporter Melissa Binder of the Oregonian Media Group wrote a piece for OregonLive.com about the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association’s intention to fly its new drone—equipped with a 2.6-pound camera—to keep tabs on Union Pacific’s nearby railyard, with which the neighborhood has had a contentious and litigious relationship. Association president Robert McCollough noted that it would be flown only over public right of ways, thereby avoiding any private property infringements.

And there are some big names lobbying for drones’ commercial use. Slate’s Will Oremus authored a June 13 article, “Google’s Eyes in the Sky,” in which he reported that the tech giant has developed an initiative called Project Loon—reliant on high-altitude balloons—and had also purchased Titan Aerospace, the maker of solar-powered drones. Though Oremus points out that the balloons are likely to be deployed with the intention of providing Internet access to rural areas, undoubtedly the drones will be used for imaging purposes. And both technologies will need the FAA’s blessing to launch and fly.

Besides the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International—the lobby organization for the manufacturers—there’s no shortage of pressure being placed on Congress and the FAA to get these things up in the air. Municipalities and police forces are already using them. Hobbyists and Hollywood want to fly them.

Simultaneously, there’s an undercurrent of an anti-drone lobby, perhaps led purely by concerned citizens and the politicians that represent them, perhaps by entities and industries that would prefer that their activities not be scrutinized. It isn’t far-fetched to imagine that “Big Agriculture”—responsible for conceiving so-called “Ag-Gag” laws—or “Big Gas & Oil” (which has prosecuted citizen journalists and attempted to “gag” doctors in states such as Pennsylvania from discussing the health issues of their industrial practices) may be leery of having drones used to monitor their activities and accidents.

“I think the anti-drone sentiment is far more prevalent at the state level than it is at the federal level,” said to Waite. “That isn’t to say that it’s not there; it’s just not nearly as overt. At the state level, I’ll give you one example: In Texas right now, if you were a reporter or journalist of any variety and you wanted to take a photo of the Dallas skyline and wanted to use a drone? Well, that photo has been taken countless times but let’s say you wanted to use a drone from the perspective of eight feet off the ground. If you go there and take that photo and you publish it, you have now committed a misdemeanor crime in Texas, because you did not get permission from every private landowner in the photo. But if you were a real estate broker, a filmmaker, an oil-and-gas pipeline owner, or a law enforcement agency, it’s legal. But if you’re a journalist, it’s not, and that’s because they stripped out the exemption for media in conference committee at the Texas State House.”

The FAA does seem to be moving forward in its considerations of drones. In 2012, the agency announced a new arm—the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office—that would manage both civil and public drone activities across the nation. Late in 2013, it also announced that it had approved a half-dozen “test sites” across the country to see how they may be integrated into the airspace and properly regulated.

Energy behemoth BP was already granted the first commercial “license to fly” a  drone in Alaska, specifically for the use of a hand-launched AeroVironment Puma AE, which will monitor pipelines, roads, and equipment at BP’s Prudhoe Bay, Alaska oilfield, according to a June 10 FAA press release.

Non-militarized drones are being used for domestic “warfare” of sorts. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is deploying drones to record illegal poaching and hunting, prompting legislators such as in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to consider countermeasures, like outlawing them for fear of disruption to legal hunting and fishing.

The vitriol surrounding drones prompted the town of Deer Trail, Colorado to consider legislation that would legalize shooting drones out of the sky. According to the Los Angeles Times, residents came to their senses in April and voted down the misguided proposal to sell “drone-hunting licenses.”

Levin says a lot of the outcry is just “bluster, because if they knew what Google already knows about them, they would be shocked, and yet they’re not going to start shooting down satellites.”

Gradually, public sentiment on drones is shifting, according to French, who noted that when Jeff Bezos publicly speculated about how drones might one day deliver Amazon goods, people started thinking about them beyond the surveillance and military deployment.

And yet, journalists and news agencies wait for a green light to fly them.  

Safety First

Safety is the primary reason why the FAA has yet to regulate and approve drones for journalists, but that slow evolution may also be attributed to a lack of legal certainty, as well, according to Dave Kroetsch, CEO of Aeryon Labs, Inc. in Ontario, Canada.

“Airborne law enforcement has been conducted since the invention of the airplane, so there’s a lot of legal precedent and procedures on the law-enforcement side of the world—things you can and cannot do, when something is legally admissible, what is considered spying, when you need a search warrant, and those kinds of dilemmas,” Kroetsch said. “[Journalists] are sort of stuck behind the FAA’s restrictions, which limit commercial and non-recreational uses.”

In the case of BP getting the first commercial license to operate a drone, Kroetsch explained that it happened by way of a loophole in the current regulations. “They’re flying surplus—former military equipment—which has already received air-worthiness, so they’re restricted to flying that specific aircraft. It’s not actually a broad approval, but it is a step in the right direction, in terms of commercial use.”

There also is some distinction between the technologies that will be used for journalism versus those used by law enforcement and the military, Kroetsch pointed out. Journalists aren’t likely to need the bells and whistles like automatic convoy tracking, but they will need technologies that give them creative control, produce quality images, audio and video, and most importantly, are reliable and easy to operate.

“There are two basic areas of safety that people talk about: Safety to other aircraft in the air, and safety of people on the ground,” said Waite. “The FAA has spent, what I believe to be, an exorbitant amount of time worrying about the safety of other aircraft in the air. … But for the bulk of the country, there’s very little in the way of air traffic, and these devices are supposed to stay below a 400-foot ceiling.

“So the FAA worries a lot about interference with aircraft in the air, but I’m saying that’s overblown. The likelihood of conflict between manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft—particularly in the small systems—is way overblown. For journalists, it’s a concern but a minor concern. The far greater risk in this scenario, in my opinion, is risk to people on the ground—particularly when we’re talking about journalism, because journalism is largely about people. We generally want to be in places where there are large groups of people, crowds, things like that. When you have a lot of people packed into a small place, that leaves precious little room for error.”

French agreed that safety concerns are legitimate. It’s a whole new world in the air when news agencies are angling for the same shot. “We can’t just have all of these drones crashing into each other,” she said. “So there needs to be some sort of permit system, and I think a lot of the technology companies are working on avoidance [features].”

It’s easy to imagine that a few mishaps might poison the well for others, including journalists. The Dallas Morning News’ Robert Wilonsky reported on June 10 that an unnamed drone enthusiast had come under FAA fire for flying his DJI Phantom Vision at too high an altitude over Dallas, eventually losing the device on the rooftop of AT&T Stadium.

Flying magazine published an op-ed on May 8 by Stephen Pope, titled, “What the FAA Must Do About UAVs.” In it, the author makes it clear that the FAA’s slow evolution on drones has been suspect. Pope wrote, “The agency’s unrealistic policy toward drones is out of step with the times and incompatible with the Constitution,” and “The FAA’s draconian blanket ban on ‘commercial’ UAV flying is a joke.”

Other news-media companies concur, and collectively filed an amicus curiae brief with the National Transportation Safety Board in May, challenging the FAA’s ban on drones used for journalistic purposes, citing that it’s an infringement on freedom of the press and a First Amendment violation. The Associated Press reported on the filing, and is a co-author of the brief, along with several media associations, broadcast companies, and newspaper publishers, including Advance Publications Inc., Gannett Co., Hearst Corp., The McClatchy Co., the Tribune Co., and The Washington Post.

“The FAA needs to define different types of drones if they’re going to regulate them,” French said. “There’s a huge, broad spectrum of drones. At the moment, a drone could be a huge military device, or it could be a 20-pound system that holds a DSLR camera. And you can imagine the damage that those could do if they fell out of the sky—some serious damage. Then there’s the smaller drones that you can buy on Amazon, anywhere really—the ones that you just need to swipe your credit card and get for $400. And if that were to fall out of the sky, it may still hurt someone, but certainly it doesn’t need the same type of regulation as one of the larger drones.”

Until the FAA publishes its regulations for these devices—pertaining to commercial and journalistic use—it remains a murky legal mess. For example, a drone may not be sent over private property without consent, but illegality is less certain when a drone can capture footage of that same property from a distance, flying over public domain.  

Flight Training

Newspaper publishers and news agencies are beginning to prepare for the day when drones are an essential tool in their technological arsenal.

“A lot of newsrooms already have photographers and videographers. Turn on any major TV station, and they probably have a helicopter to report on traffic, fires, and things of that nature,” French said. “The great thing about a drone is that…the initial investment is very small. Then, it’s just a matter of paying someone to use it.”

“Our legal counsel has said, ‘You have to be prepared. You can get sued at any point.’ And there’s no rhyme nor reason at this point for who the FAA is suing and why,” Siditsky said. “We have run drone footage on some of our websites. We may have produced some of it, and we may have acquired it from other places. It’s readily available, and there are many people producing it. But what we’re doing right now is encouraging our people to sit tight for the moment, to see how this will play out—hopefully, in the not too distant future—with the FAA.

“Training is going to be paramount. And the same sensibilities that we have instilled with our photojournalists will apply. We need to understand what our rights are as journalists, and also the rights that people have to privacy. We need to know where we can be and where we can’t be. We’re obviously not going to fly drones up to people’s windows. That’s not OK. It wasn’t OK before to get a stepladder and look into windows with a lens, nor will it be OK to use these devices in that way.”

Levin agreed. “If you’re not going to be there, reporting with a regular camera, then you shouldn’t be there with a drone. … You have to use your sensibilities and try to retain your basic journalistic ethics, even though you’re using a new tool.”

Pertaining to ethics and legality, Levin pointed out there’s a lot of gray area between what is considered professional journalism, citizen journalism, and hobbyists. “Is it journalism, or is it infotainment,” he said. “The people at Entertainment Tonight think of themselves as journalists, but is it journalism because of the story they’re covering, or is it journalism because they have a microphone and camera? With the evolution of the Internet and Twitter and instant news availability, the traditional lines of journalism have been blurred.”

Though the ethics of in-flight journalism may not be any different than reporting from the ground, flight and safety training is a serious concern.

“I feel that there is skill involved, and skill that can only be gained by practicing and using it,” Siditsky said. “Training someone may require a certain number of hours of practice and working to hone the skill. I feel like we have people in our organizations that will have that skill—or have the ability to develop it—but I don’t know whether we’ll need to bring in specialized ‘drone operators,’ per se.”

Manufacturers like Aeryon Labs are cognizant about creating commercial-grade UAVs that will be easy to use and safe to operate.

According to Kroetsch, “In terms of [concerns] like drones running into objects or into each other, the industry is on par with the car industry. There’s not that level of automation yet. Some day it may be like the Google Car that drives itself and is guaranteed never to get into an accident, but right now there’s still a person at the controls of all these systems.

“We understand that in some of our markets, it might be a police officer flying the system, who is not a pilot. In other worlds, it might be a journalist who’s flying, who is not a pilot. They’re just trying to capture an image. So we’ve got a point-and-click system. If you know how to use Google Maps, it’s literally that easy to use one of our UAVs. You touch on the map where you want it to go; you tell it what you want it to take a photo of, and it does the rest. That type of technology is what we believe will be critical to handing it off to somebody who isn’t a specialist. … The other thing is, if you have only one person in the agency who is able to use the system, it will diminish your overall ability to use it. If you’ve got multiple people trained and can use the system, it’s far easier to justify a purchase like that, because you can hand it off to whomever needs to use it that day.”

Drone technologies are evolving almost as quickly as the culture surrounding them. A device like a Parrot AR.Drone is operated by way of a mobile phone app. Increasingly, they come equipped with high-quality imaging devices, such as DJI’s new Phantom 2 Vision+.

South African drone manufacturer Desert Wolf is now selling the Skunk Riot Control Copter, equipped not only with a camera and microphone, but also with paintball-like guns that can deploy plastic bullets and pepper spray pellets. A device like that isn’t likely to appeal to news agencies, but it does demonstrate how quickly the small-category technologies are evolving.

Currently, there are limited resources for journalists interested in learning about the technologies available, how to fly them safely, and the ethics of their deployment. French’s blog is a good source for discussion and news, and she also recommends the Drone Journalism Lab and Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

“I spent about six months just learning how to fly [a drone] before I started to try anything with actual video or photos,” Levin said. “I used manual mode, as opposed to the GPS mode, which is sort of like cruise control in your car. In manual mode, you’re in full control, and it’s like riding a bike, when every move you make is something that you do; it’s not the device doing it for you. That saves your butt if GPS fails.”  

Seeing Beyond the Horizon

The beauty of UAVs for journalists lies in not only a new reporting tool, a new way to gather content, but also to protect journalists in the field. As the job of journalist grows increasingly dangerous, drones may become valuable eyes in the sky, keeping journalists from harm, overseeing them when they do find themselves in harm’s way, and perhaps even used in search-and-rescue efforts when things go bad.

“The use of drones in combat situations and war zones is more theoretical than practical at the moment,” Waite said. “They’re still dangerous to use in hostile areas, for a number reasons. You’re talking about a very short range and flight time, and if you are directly controlling the device, it means that you have to launch and capture from the same spot. So any hostile in the area can just follow it and be led right to you.

“The other issue is signal detection. Radio signal detection technology has existed for quite some time, so if a hostile force is in the area, and you’re standing there with a transmitter in your hands, they can come right to you.”

In these cases, he suggested a more autonomous operation strategy, whereby the drone is operated by two people—one to launch, and one to recover from a different location: “If a news organization out there is thinking about using drones in this way, I think you have to think it through very hard, because it might be used to help support journalists—knowing where they’re at, helping to find where they are, but it can also have some pretty unintended and direct consequences for them.”

Predictions as to how soon drone technology will be truly transformative and ubiquitous in journalism vary, but not by much. French thinks it will happen in just a few short years, with the FAA regulations expected by 2016. The technology is “there,” and news agencies are already “dabbling” in flight. “Unfortunately, what’s holding us back right now … are the legal issues. Everyone is so unsure about what’s illegal, and I don’t think a lot of journalists and newsrooms have the money to tackle a $10,000 lawsuit plus legal fees.”

Kroetsch is empathetic to the dilemmas the FAA faces: “It’s a challenging problem to solve, and nobody wants to take the risk by saying, ‘Here are the rules that should apply.’ There are some broad rules that we believe will be made first, such as flying within the line of sight of the operator, having someone at the joystick who can safely pilot the craft. There will also likely be a weight restriction, so you’ll find small UAVs used sooner than the larger UAVs, simply because they pose less risk to everybody on the ground.”

Waite assures newspaper publishers that there will be time to properly prepare and equip their newsrooms once the FAA’s rulings are published, and he hopes that they’ll be reasonable and effective.

“The FAA may say that you have to have a private pilot’s license to fly these,” he said. “I can tell you from experience, having studied for the FAA’s private pilot’s knowledge test—which we’ve been asked to take as part of authorization—80 percent of it has nothing to do with drones. Getting a pilot’s license would be a significant waste of time and money for a UAV pilot.”

Waite added that it will take between a year and 18 months for regulations to go “from proposal to implementation,” granting publishers that time to figure out how they’re going to comply with them, make the investments, and train their operators. “But right now, we’re all just sitting here saying, ‘Please, tell us what you want!’ ”

Siditsky pointed out that drones are like a genie who won’t go quietly back into the bottle. “Unless there’s some ruling that decides that devices can’t even exist, in any way, shape or form—unless the very idea of drones is somehow squashed—they’re going to be commonplace. And even if they did go away, just Google ‘how to build a kite cam.’ The FAA can’t regulate kites. While they’re not yet like everyone having a phone, at this point, it is not hard for anybody with a little bit of ingenuity to come up with a way to put a camera in the air and to produce a quality, useful image.”

Though the FAA declined to be interviewed for this article, FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette offered the following statement via email: “The FAA will publish a proposed rule for small unmanned aircraft later this year that [sic] we expect will provide regulations and standards for a broad spectrum of users. The increasing use of unmanned aircraft also poses privacy issues that will need to be address [sic] through an intergovernmental effort.”

While the bureaucratic wheels at the FAA and Congress grind, newspaper publishers may be well served by getting out in front of the issue—learning about the technologies available, determining how best to leverage them, and training either existing photojournalist staff members or bringing in new specialists who can be ready at the controls when they’re given the license to fly.


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