When more than 6 feet of snow fell on and around Buffalo, N.Y., in November, television stations and news websites used aerial video for an immersive perspective of the storm. One particular flyover video from WKBW took viewers through a suburban winter wonderland where houses, cars and trees were buried under a dense blanket of snow.
But that video did not come from a TV helicopter. It was shot by a remote-controlled quadcopter taking off from — and landing back in — filmmaker Jim Grimaldi’s garage in the Lake Erie town of West Seneca. His video is a clear example of the power of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, in journalistic storytelling. It’s also a clear example of the kind of activity that the Federal Aviation Administration regulates.
Currently, it is illegal in the United States to use UAVs for commercial purposes, including journalism and advertising. That means U.S. news organizations cannot technically fly drones (though some outlets have stepped against and over this line in the law).
However, the FAA is drafting rules that would allow commercial UAV use. Many journalists and news outlets hope the new rules will open the door to drone-assisted reporting.
But even before news-gathering drones get off the ground, journalism schools should teach students about them. At the very least, students should learn about the legal, ethical and safety issues surrounding unmanned aircraft — as well as how they can enhance reporting.
The Missouri School of Journalism and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have led the way in teaching students how to use drones. However, in 2013, the FAA grounded outdoor flights at both schools until they get a certificate of authorization from the agency. And that’s unlikely until the FAA approves new rules governing small UAV use.
In the meantime, though, here are things j-schools should teach students about this still-emerging technology in news gathering:
• Be careful with terminology. To many people, the word “drone” connotes military weapon and “remote-controlled” means a toy. For journalists, a drone is neither a weapon nor a toy. So with non-journalists, it is better to use terms like UAV or UAS (unmanned aerial system, which includes the vehicle, pilot and any controls or sensors facilitating flight).
• The bird’s-eye view from such vehicles can convey certain news stories in ways that words and ground-level photos cannot match. Examples include an exposé published by Vice about the factory farming of pigs and coverage of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
• The rules governing drones vary from country to country and state to state. In El Salvador, Mexico and Brazil, for example, reporters can use UAVs as long as they do so safely.
• Safety is paramount; four people have died in recent years due to drones falling out of the sky, according to the FAA. UAVs also can pose a danger to helicopters and airplanes. Between June and November, U.S. pilots reported to the FAA 25 near-collisions with drones.
• Ethical concerns, including a regard for privacy, also are critical. “The drone must be operated in a fashion that does not needlessly compromise the privacy of non-public figures,” according to the code of ethics developed by the Professional Society of Drone Journalists.
• Drone journalism, including shooting video for a student news outlet’s website, is currently illegal, punishable by a $10,000 fine. But in an exception to the ban on commercial use, the FAA has given seven video production companies in Hollywood permission to use drones. Among journalists, that has raised hopes, but also fears that operators will need an airplane pilot’s license.
Drone journalists will be in a holding pattern for at least a year while the FAA proposes commercial UAV rules, invites public comment and then adopts final regulations. Until then, under the agency’s somewhat counterintuitive rules for hobbyists, you still can buy a drone and practice flying it.
A satellite-guided quadcopter equipped with a video camera can cost less than $1,000, and it’s OK to fly for recreational purposes only. That means keeping it below 400 feet, away from airports and air traffic, and within sight of the operator.
Jeff South is a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is teaching a course about drones this spring. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig Zirpolo is a VCU senior journalism major and videographer who researches unmanned flight and new media. Contact him at email@example.com.