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Drone Journalism Waits for Takeoff

Tablets and smartphones aren’t the only technologies sitting under Christmas trees that could have a potentially important impact on TV journalism in upcoming years. One idea intriguing a growing number of journalists and academics is using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.

Most people know about drones costing millions of dollars being used by the U.S. military in far-fl ung places such as Afghanistan. Those conspicuous models are clearly too big to wrap, but parents can already buy their kids remote-controlled (RC) helicopters for under $50, and hobbyists can spend as little as $300 for the Parrot AR.Drone, which takes 720p pictures and can be piloted via an app for Apple or Android tablets and phones.

As the technology improves and cameras get smaller, it will be possible to get good HD-quality images from drones costing as little as a few thousand dollars that could be used by broadcast stations to monitor traffic or fly over disaster zones following a major hurricane or earthquake, all for a fraction of the cost of maintaining a news helicopter.

“I think people in the broadcast industry would be really interested in using this as a low-cost alternative to a news helicopter,†says Matthew Schroyer, who founded both the Professional Society of Drone Journalists and

Other potential uses include surveying natural disasters, traffic reporting, investigative reporting on environmental issues, covering oil spills and getting aerial shots for TV, film and advertising production, note Schroyer and Matthew Waite, a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska, who has set up a drone journalism lab at the school.

Selling all these concepts will require time, however, as unmanned aerial vehicles remain years away from widespread usage. While government agencies and hobbyists can use them under limited conditions, Federal Aviation Administration rules currently ban the use of drones for any commercial purpose, including journalism, Waite says.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which requires the FAA to set up regulations allowing the commercial use of drones by September 2015.

That deadline may, however, be difficult to meet. “They have a breakneck timeline to get this done by 2015,†says Kathleen Bartzen Culver, assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism & Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, who has been researching the ethics of drone journalism. “There are so many issues involved, and journalism is only a tiny slice of this.

“Some people estimate that there will be 10,000 to 30,000 of these commercial drones in the airspace over the next decade, so the FAA is looking at some very fast development,†she adds.

The delays will, however, give news organizations some time to think about a few thorny ethical issues, including privacy rights, safety and the impact drones might have on the credibility of the news media if they were misused.

“[The delay] is really a gift because it will give us time to figure out the proper and ethnical uses before we go out and learn the hard way,†Waite says. “What keeps me up at night is that someone will do something dumb and…we see bad policy get made by bad actors.â€

The technology has raised fears that it would be abused by paparazzi to stalk celebrities and would pose safety risks.

While those concerns should be taken very seriously, the FAA is likely to heavily regulate who can operate drones, and the technology might limit some potential abuses. Currently, for example, small drones have a battery life of about 15 to 20 minutes. “If you want to stalk Lindsay Lohan, you’d need a truckload of batteries,†Waite says.

In the meantime, some examples of journalists using drones are already beginning to surface. In Australia, where drone rules are being liberalized, Channel 9’s 60 Minutes used a drone to shoot footage of immigrant detention centers after authorities had denied them access. The drone, however, crashed into the ocean after flying over the facility, prompting complaints from government officials about safety.

“It shows the promise and peril of drone journalism,†Waite says.

Bartzen Culver notes that News Corp.’s now defunct iPad magazine, The Daily, used drones to provide aerial footage of the Tuscaloosa, Ala., tornadoes in 2011. And Waite’s students have posted a compelling piece on the Kansas drought at that shows how footage from drones might be combined with traditional environmental reporting.

“There is an enormous potential for investigative journalism,†Schroyer says.

Two notable websites with more information on drone journalism are and Both include information on the technology, best practices, ethics, safety and other important issues as well as links to stories using drones. 

The Channel 9 in Australia report can be viewed here.

A great overview by Kathleen Bartzen Culver of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication offers some of the issues facing drone journalists, and a link to a story on tornadoes, published by The Daily, can be found here.

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