Could Drones Help Journalists?
Credit: screenshot
December 6, 2013

Journalists were fascinated by the drone that University of Nebraska professor Matt Waite recently flew around the Online News Association’s annual conference.

The federal government is not as enthused.

Waite said at the conference presentation that he had received a letter in July ordering him to shut down his project of two years — testing and flying drones as part of the university’s Drone Journalism Lab

He was then informed, he said, that he needed permits because he was a paid professor.

“We had been flying under the idea that we could use hobbyist rules,” he said. “If you’re a hobbyist you can fly, but you can’t be compensated in any way, shape or form. Well, the FAA is defining compensation very, very broadly — so a student getting a grade is being compensated, they’re out. Anybody taking money, out. Anybody taking even links to their company website, out.”

Now that drones have become cheap enough for the average citizen to buy (they start at $300), professionals are considering different ways to use them. With the Federal Aviation Administration set to release new rules for small drones in early 2014 and Jeff Bezos’ announcement of Amazon delivery drones, these flying robots are set to become crucial tools for multiple industries.

“Not to sound like a used car salesman, but I can find you a drone that fits your budget,” Waite said. “That’s the opportunity; it’s also the peril.”

There’s huge potential for drones to enhance the level of journalism produced in this country, including the ability to collect data during severe weather situations, Waite said in a separate interview with AJR.

“My original dream when I started this in November of 2011 was that you could have just a bank of these in the newsroom and any old idiot could go up and grab one and cover a fire with it,” Waite said at the presentation.

However, safety and privacy remain significant issues. Even small drones take some skill to fly, Waite said, and there’s a possibility of hurting someone if the drone is circling over a crowd and something goes wrong.

Which is why he is so interested in studying the technology — in hopes of understanding it enough to show other journalists how to effectively use it.

“I have the ability now to look at this system and treat it like an investigative reporting project and help people out,” Waite said.

  • Wiseman28

    Drone photo coverage would be extremely helpful here in Southwest Florida where fertilizer runoff often devastates coastal waters, resulting in massive algal blooms teeming with dangerous bacteria. Daily video monitoring of the beachfront waters could warn potential beachgoers including fishermen and tourists so they could avoid such nightmares.

    • Josh Davidsburg

      Red tide!

  • davidcayjohnston

    Ms. Thompson and Ms. Fischer (whose email is not at the AJR page generated by clicking on her byline, meaning sources have no way to reach her) —

    Interesting article, but avoid starting pieces with “were.” Active, lively verbs can make your writing take flight.

    Other than in hard news, ledes should intrigue more than inform. So, had Matt Waite’s drone crashed and killed two students:

    An out of control drone killed two students today
    as they watched a journalism professor’s presentation
    on how small automated flying machines could help
    reporters gather news.

    In a feature the static “were” — and the self-referential focus on the audience rather than the fascinating action — encourages readers to hop on another story.

    That the federal government “is not as enthused” comes after you have explained the issues or provided context. Again, a lively verb helps.

    Since the federal government is neither a human being, nor monolithic, that line also goes too far. You mean the federal agency that regulates air space. You also missed a chance to spotlight the irony between the First Amendment (which applies to all Americans, not just journalists) and the permit required when a drone operator, in your curious phrase, is a “paid professor.”

    We learn by experience. Sit down at a terminal with your piece to refine its rich, but rough, vein of with human interest about what people generally do not know — drones can be reporting tools. Each of you should rewrite it over and over and over and over, polishing the concept and each line until it reads as smooth as a plane’s wing, lifting the imaginations of readers. That rigorous work will help your future pieces soar as high as the facts, and your reporting skills, allow.

  • Hussein Nagah Zaky

    It would be a great tool to cover protests and hot spots in many places in all over the world