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    The News Drones On: Tabloids, J-School, and Public Radio are Getting Flying Robots

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Dusty old pro reporters are already losing out to those curious hordes of citizen journalists that snap vids on their iPhones. Why rely on some old salty dog correspondent when you’ve got proof of the revolution on YouTube? Then again, why not cut humans out of the picture altogether, and just have the video camera do the dirty work?

    Maybe that’s why news agencies, gossip blogs, and journalism departments in universities are all beginning to explore the possibility of bringing unmanned aerial vehicles into their newsrooms. I put the question to Matthew Waite, the head of Nebraska University’s pioneering Drone Journalism Lab. “Why invest in UAVs for journalism?” he wrote in an email. “Simply put, they offer the possibility of being able to gather images, video and data from the air for a fraction of the cost and complexity of a manned aircraft.”

    After all, in our brave new drone world, UAVs aren’t just raining hellfire on Afghanistan, even today: they’re assisting humanfolk with a wide range of tasks that go by “the three D’s”—dull, dirty, and dangerous (see our new documentary “Drone On” for a glimpse into some of the other uses that have received less coverage). That includes, eventually, gathering the news. And the less-than news too: it was recently reported that gossip behemoth TMZ was pursuing drones—an elegant technology good for spying on insurgents and celebrities alike.

    Tabloid Drones and News Corps Drones

    TMZ’s drone interest shouldn’t really have been all that shocking. After all, TMZ’s bread and butter is posting pics, news, and gossip designed to be as invasive as possible. The rag faced a storm of criticism when word leaked out that it wanted a drone, as the very people who delight in clicking through its salacious pages hypocritically decried the infringement into celebrity airspace.

    Now, TMZ denies ever having any intention to procure a UAV—its editors posted a note proclaiming as much to their site:

    TMZ is NOT getting in the DRONE business … we don’t have a drone … we don’t want a drone … we never applied for a drone … despite a bogus report to the contrary.

    So no celebrity spy drones for TMZ, for now. But they’re already being used elsewhere—the SF Chronicle recently reported that “Paparazzi are already using small drones on the Riviera to shoot photos of celebrities in hard-to-access areas.”

    But the looming prospect of news-gathering robots was propelled further into the mainstream bloodstream than perhaps ever before. Because, really, the idea isn’t outrageous at all. The cost of easy-to-maneuver drones equipped with quality video cameras is falling, and the technology is already more than capable. Really, the biggest impediment to news drones is probably federal regulation—the FAA won’t release its rules on UAVs until 2015, which means the current laws of the land stand; that it’s illegal to fly drones over 400 ft, and in most places where they could feasibly invade private property.

    Rupert Murdoch’s always-nefarious News Corp found that out the hard way. Its Daily was, fittingly, one of the first media outlets to try to use drones, regulations be damned. Back in 2011, Forbes reported that the Daily twice flew drones into disaster zones on news-gathering missions, and probably violated federal regulations. It faces citations and fines—most news orgs are likely going to sit tight until 2015 in the wake of its example.

    Public Radio Drones

    Until then, it’s time to tinker. KBIA, an NPR affiliate in Missouri, has launched a “Drone Program” with a $25,000 grant to investigate ways to use drones to break news.

    Scott Pham, the station’s content director, explained their mission to Politico:

    Because current regulations require drones to stay below 400 feet and away from populated areas, our area of focus will be on rural and environmental stories. We plan to fly only on public lands or in areas where we have explicit permission from the landowners. The result will be a collection of web and radio stories that take advantage of a drone’s ability to gain perspectives and information not easily obtained on the ground."

    Drones in J-School

    Elsewhere, journalists and academics are avidly studying the future of drones in journalism. Researchers at the University of Nebraska, led by Matt Waite, have received $50,000 to look into the potential drones present for covering natural disasters and conflicts.

    The Washington Times explains Waite’s innovation: “Mr. Waite founded Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab, the first of its kind in the country. In January, his brainstorm was bolstered by an inadvertent proof of concept: An amateur drone pilot in Texas captured aerial footage of a ‘river of blood’ flowing from a Dallas-area meatpacking plant, prompting public outrage and a criminal investigation.”

    Waite told me about the massive appeal drones should have to newsrooms and their ever-shrinking budgets:

    A lot of places are trying to keep the doors open, say nothing for renting helicopters for thousands of dollars an hour. So, most importantly in my view, it allows journalists to gather information on major news events — like a natural disaster — for less money and in less time than before. And I think that’s an important point — there’s a limit to the number of stories they’re useful for. You’re not going to cover the city council with a drone. But natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires and other events with a large spatial extent are very much the kinds of stories you could cover with a UAV. Environmental changes, hard to see from the ground but clearly visible from the air, are a story. I’m interested in using UAVs to place sensors to gather data. Think Fukushima — use a UAV to place radiation sensors around the area and report levels in real time. The exciting thing is that we’re just starting to think of the things we can do with UAVs.

    Waite too seems frustrated by the rigid and outmoded regulatory framework currently used to deal with drones. But privacy concerns continue to weigh on lawmakers and the public, and the justifiably negative connotation that drones command thanks to UAVs’ role in modern warfare likely bogs down progress.

    But the fact is that Pham and Waite are right—there are immense benefits to being able to pilot a small unmanned information-collector into volatile areas. Disaster and conflict reportage could improve dramatically. Yet fairly regulating this sphere use is going to be a perilously tricky tightrope walk—nobody wants to feel like they live in a buzzing surveillance state, where drones can peer into windows and follow them down the street, in the name of news-gathering. Even so, drones are affordable, and increasingly ubiquitous. Chances are, most of us will live to see the day where a good chunk of our daily news intake is delivered by steely unmanned robots.