Robot Reporters

Will UAVs become as indispensable for journalists as notepads and digital recorders?

University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Matt Waite (left) and Carrick Detweiler use a Falcon 8 UAV to document the effects of drought on the Platte River. Ben Kreimer, Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Matt Waite of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Drone Journalism Lab considers the practical — and ethical — implications of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reporting. Waite spoke with Associate Editor Rebecca Maksel in October.

Air & Space: You established the Drone Journalism Lab in 2011. How did you pitch it to the university?

Waite: I had gone to a digital mapping conference in San Diego earlier that summer. I saw a company there called Gatewing, and they were selling a product called the X100. It’s this fully autonomous aerial mapping platform, maybe 4-foot-by-3-foot plane, that has a camera in the bottom of it. They had this wonderful production demonstration video where you watched somebody take it out in the field and pull out a tablet computer that had a map on it, and you drew an area [on the map] that you wanted it to fly and photograph. And you’d say I’m going to take off here, and I’m going to land here, and you plugged that flight plan into the airplane, and off it went. No pilot required. It just went and did it.

A few minutes later it lands, and you pull the memory card out of the camera, and it would stitch those images together, and do a composite, high-resolution image of the ground. And I saw that, and I went, Oh, wow. There’s Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there’s Joplin, Missouri, there’s the next city that’s going to be destroyed by some kind of massive weather event. I ran up to the guy on the sales floor, and I handed him my wallet and said, “I’m taking that one.” And he said, “Well, sorry, they’re $65,000 each, and they’re also completely illegal in the United States.”

I’m like…gah…so close! My imagination was just on fire at that point. So I started looking into things, and I found there was this do-it-yourself community out there called DIY Drones, of people building and flying their own recreational, autonomous aircraft. The FAA was at the time considering changing the rules, so I thought, well if these things are all going on, then I think it’s entirely reasonable to believe that one day journalists could use UAVs to do journalism.

So I went to the Dean of the College of Journalism here (at the time), a guy named Gary Kebbel, and I said, “I think this is going to be a thing, and I think we ought to build a lab here.” And he said, “Cool.” And that was pretty much it. So we tried to find grant funds, and space, and figure out what it is we would pitch to funders as to what we were going to do.

The idea of using aircraft [to photograph] images from the air of a mass disaster is something that journalists have been doing for a very long time. Where UAVs change the equation is that now many people can do it—and for a lot less money.

Due to the current FAA restrictions, what are the practical applications for drone journalism—or can you even have drone journalism at this point in the U.S.?

Waite: Nope. Straightforward no. Well, I shouldn’t say that. You can’t have professional drone journalism. When I say “professional,” I mean: If I happen to have a camera onboard [an RC aircraft] and take some pictures, I’m more than welcome to have those pictures, but the moment that I sell them to somebody, or take money for them, it becomes a commercial purpose. And the FAA does consider journalism to be a commercial purpose.

For the time being, there is no widespread way for drone journalism to go on. That’s not to say it’s not happening. Because we have things like the Internet and YouTube, people who fly remote control aircraft have put videos of things that they’ve done up on the Internet, and just said, “Here, world, have it.”

There was a man in Dallas, Texas, who was flying his remote controlled airplane and had a camera onboard it, and he was flying next door to a meat packing plant. His camera caught images of the plant dumping pig blood into a nearby creek, which then flowed into the Trinity River, which then became part of the city of Dallas’ drinking water supply.

When he saw what he had, he turned it over to environmental authorities, and he put the images out there for anybody to see. He may not have realized that he was doing drone journalism, but to me, that is in the highest and best traditions of investigative reporting. If a newsroom had gotten a tip that that was going on, the only way that they could get that was to fly something next door and get a picture of it—they would have done it. That’s totally within the purview of investigative journalism.

There are other examples that you mostly see overseas, of people using small, multi-rotor helicopters to cover protests—in Moscow late last year, and another one in Warsaw, Poland.

That one has been taken down from so many sites. You can still see it on, but everywhere else it has been pulled. I wondered what sort of repercussions there’d been.

Waite: It’s a good question. At least here in the U.S., what I have heard, is that generally, if you run afoul of these rules you get a phone call from the FAA, and they say, “knock it off” in so many words. And most people have done just that.

The Daily—the Murdoch News Corp.-owned iPad news organization—hired a company that had a multi-rotor helicopter, put a camera on it, and produced some really stunning videos from Tuscaloosa and from, I think Joplin. They put those on the Daily, and the FAA called them up and [told them to stop]. Because the Daily is subscription-based, and the addition of the videos could be used to induce people to subscribe, they thought it crossed the line into a commercial purpose.

I’ve heard of realtors in Southern California, Los Angeles in particular, using UAV companies to fly over multi-million dollar properties that they’re trying to sell, gorgeous, sweeping shots that look like they were filmed for a movie. And the FAA has told them to knock it off as well. That too is a commercial enterprise. I think you’re going to see more and more of this as the technology matures, and people realize that they can do something that is financially in their best interest. They may not be completely aware of what the rules are right now.

Isn’t there also a rule that you can’t fly near people?

Waite: I think the wording is that you can’t fly [a drone] in built-up areas. Which is to say near a lot of houses or near people. So that’s tough. Certainly for a lot of journalism, and certainly with realtors, and people like that trying to use them—I’ve said before that the recreational rules right now are: you can’t fly over 400 feet; you can’t be out of the line of sight of the operator; you can’t fly near built-up areas; and you can’t use it for commercial purposes. If it were just the first three, I think drone journalism would be going on right now. The commercial purposes one is the one that’s just…you can’t get around that one. There’s nothing you can do about that one.

There is journalism to be done where there aren’t people, or where there are few people. Stories about the environment, stories about wildlife, stories about rural areas. I live in the Great Plains, so agriculture is a big thing out here. So is the weather. If a severe storm blows through an area, it could potentially do millions and millions of dollars of damage to crops at certain times of the year. We’re going through the worst drought since the 1950s right now. Those are all stories that could be told through the eyes of a UAV, and if I were at a commercial news organization I would be thinking about it. But because of the commercial purposes exemption, it’s just impossible.

I’ve read that you’re working with the university to document the Platte River? Can you tell me about that project?

Waite: Because we’re at a university, because we have no commercial interest, we have a little bit of flexibility here. We have at the university multiple groups working on projects out on the Platte River, which is a major water source that runs through the middle of the state. The Platte runs in some very rural areas, so we can go out there with UAVs and fly under recreational rules, where we’re nowhere near people. We’re far away from airports, we’re under 400 feet, and well within the line of sight at any time. We’ve produced some really amazing video from those places.

And you’re documenting the water levels, the drought?

Waite: We’re documenting the drought, and we’re documenting just what we did, because this is such a new thing that it’s interesting how we go about this.

We wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of another lab here on campus, called the NIMBUS [Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems] Lab. They are in the computer science and engineering department, and they’ve been working on issues involving UAVs for quite a while now. They volunteered to go out with us on the Platte, and we used their gear (we’re still waiting on our own gear). They have multiple varieties of UAVs, and they are looking for new and interesting ways to use them.

What types of UAVs did you use for this project?

Waite: The one that we mainly relied on is [from a] company called Ascending Technologies, a German company. And they have a device called the Falcon 8. It is an 8-rotored helicopter that has a camera mounted on the front of it that I believe goes for about $25,000. Which is why I’m glad the folks from the NIMBUS Lab were there with us.

I’ve got a little one here that I bought myself, it’s a Parrot AR drone, a $300 toy you can get at Brookstone at the mall. It’s a little quad-rotor that you can fly with your iPhone. It’s a toy, so it crashes a lot and it breaks a lot. So that’s my frame of reference on flying these things. This Ascending Technologies Falcon 8, if I had flown it and crashed it, I would have been handing them the keys to my car, and saying, “Yeah, I probably owe you another $20,000. Sorry!”

That’s the one we mostly used. They did some experiments with their Hummingbird, which is a quad-copter, four rotors, and we also brought one of the Parrot AR drones just for kicks because we had it right there. But the Falcon 8 is the one that did the most work. It is most steady, it had the best camera, it had the most range. It was a fantastic piece of technology.

How long can it stay in the air?

Waite: Most multi-rotor helicopters have the same amount of flight time, which is right about 15 to 20 minutes. I think we were getting between 13 and 15 minutes. It was an exceptionally calm day, almost shockingly calm for out here on the Great Plains, and beautiful and sunny that day.

Until the FAA comes out with rules for commercial use of drones [Sept 2015], will the Lab focus more on examining the ethical issues of drone journalism?

Waite: What I’ve envisioned for the lab is almost a 50-50 split between [that and] the practical questions of how you could cover news with the drone: what kind of weather can you fly in, how windy can it be before you have to say no, how much of a camera can these things lift, what kind of performance can you expect, what kind of reliability can you expect. These are all very practical questions that there’s almost zero information about within newsrooms.

I think that this gap in time between now and September 2015 is a gift in a lot of ways, because this may be among the first times that we are able to think about the use of a technology before we actually use it. We have time now to think about the ethics of using a UAV to cover news. I should say this goes well beyond journalism. These are questions that we as a society need to consider. What are our expectations of privacy? Currently the courts say above 500 feet that’s the national airspace, and that’s a public street. So if I’m flying in the national airspace and I see you nude sunbathing in your backyard…well that’s too bad, it’s no different than I’m standing on the street and I can see you nude sunbathing in your backyard.

Is that what we as a society think is a reasonable expectation? Do we have other ideas? Obviously the FAA as a safety organization has to consider how to let these things be used, and at the same time keep us safe. So what are those rules?

From my journalistic-centric worldview, there are a lot of advocates who want the FAA to approve each individual use of a UAV. Basically you have to file a flight plan for each use with the FAA, and they have to approve or disapprove of it.

That would never work.

Waite: For a lot of reasons! But let me give you one that immediately jumped into my head. That puts the FAA in a position of approving or disapproving of the journalism that I do. And that is Prior Restraint. That has been repeatedly forbidden by the courts, and is expressly forbidden by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom […] of the press.” So, if somebody at the FAA can say, “No, I don’t want you to do that story,” they can deny me a permit to fly on that particular day at that particular time at that particular place, and that smacks of prior restraint. I don’t think a lot of people are considering First Amendment rights.

What are your student researchers working on?

Waite: We have a $50,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and have been working to get that in place so we can go and buy our own gear. In the meantime, given that we’re solidly into the semester here, they’ve been working on gathering research materials. We’ve been looking at civil aviation laws in other countries with respect to unmanned aerial vehicles. We’ve been looking at the history of journalistic technologies. When a new tool comes along that journalists use, what happens? There’s a pretty interesting and consistent history there of everybody freaking out and declaring the death of privacy and the death of public life, and then we kind of figure out it really isn’t that scary, and we kind of incorporate this technology into our lives and we move on.

There’s a really interesting story about the introduction of the Kodak Brownie, the first camera that existed outside of a studio. There were people writing these scandalous and almost hysteric pieces about the death of public life, because a photographer went into a Broadway play and used a flashlight and a Kodak Brownie to take a picture of an actress in a pair of tights. And everyone was scandalized by this. All of these learned people were discussing how all of society will never be the same because you could be photographed outside of a photo studio. It’s fun to think about just what those people would think of Smartphones with fantastic digital cameras on them. I can pull up an app on my phone and begin broadcasting live video to the rest of the world in a matter of seconds.

A lot of people have asked me, “When can I take the drone class?” I’m really hesitant to do that, actually. I’m not so certain that there should be a drone class. Should we teach a class on how to do Smartphone journalism? It’s just a tool. I think journalists in particular, and society in some respect gets a little too wrapped up in the tech, and not the result.

I was just in Germany for a few days, speaking to a media innovation conference over there in Hamburg, and there was a story that implied that the naked photos of [Kate Middleton] were taken with a drone. It turns out it’s not true, but they were all asking me this. What about these photos being taken with a drone? I said, “Well, I don’t know if they were or not. But, what I do know is that if you look at those photos, all of them are angled up, they appear to be from the ground looking up. It was somebody standing on the ground with an exceptionally long telephoto lens.”

But all of that is beside the point. What if they had been taken with a drone? Would that change anything at all about how you feel about them being a violation of her privacy? A naked picture of her in a private moment is a violation of her privacy no matter how the photo is taken. That’s why I say we all get a little too wrapped up in the tech, and not so much in the action.  A lot of our ethical discussions in the lab have been the same thing. There are laws against me going to somebody’s house with a long telephoto lens and taking pictures in their windows. There is absolutely nothing about a UAV that if I were to fly it up to your window and take photos of you, there’s nothing that about that that makes it any less wrong or illegal.

A good question that we have been asking ourselves is: Are these new ethical problems, or are they old ethical problems with new technology? And a considerable number of them are old ethical problems, just with new technology. The one that I don’t have a good answer for is the matter of profusion. Currently it costs many hundreds to many thousands of dollars to rent a helicopter or rent an airplane and get in the air to take pictures of someone. So there is a basic scarcity of airborne imagery in news organizations. What changes when everyone can put a camera in the air? What happens when instead of having one, or two, or three cameras in the air, you have 40 or 100 or 1,000. Is there a significant difference? My instincts say yes, but I don’t yet know what those are. I guess that’s why they call it research.

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