Viewpoint: A case for using drones in journalism

A drone is much like a butter knife. It is a tool, but can stab someone if sharpened. Why do journalists want a stake in this taboo technology? Simply because drones can be a tool to take photos and videos, collect data, and report news.

Drones, known to most Americans as flying-robot-killing-machines, are classified as any unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. So basically, a remote-controlled toy helicopter with a camera attached to it that you can buy at any hobby store nationwide would classify as a drone. The word “drone” has become basically useless because it’s so widely used.

“Because we can, should we?” is one of the major ethical questions in the commercial drone debate. People, including us, don’t like the idea of robots watching them from the sky. Already, 43 states have introduced laws limiting UAVs in some way. Some of these laws infringe on our free-press rights as journalists, and others deal with simple law enforcement.

But news organizations and even freelance journalists wanting to use drones face a few roadblocks. The most major of these is that drones are banned for journalists. UAVs are currently illegal for commercial use. Journalism, even for nonprofit news sources, falls into this category of commercialism, according to the FAA. By September of 2015, the FAA must create regulations for UAV commercial use.

Currently, the FAA keeps a close eye on drones, with only a 400-foot elevation to work with; drones must be kept in naked-eye sight while in flight. UAVs cannot capture pictures or videos of people without prior consent.

So, with all these limitations currently in place, how could the use of drones benefit journalists and the public?

Journalists can use drones to provide an aerial perspective of a river after a drought or a farm after a tornado. A drone could fly over a city park and record a protest. A journalist using a drone in Turkey has already done this. Journalists can not only preserve their own lives by using drones, but can also get these powerful images and videos out to the public in places where the media is controlled and restricted by the government.

Data collected from these drones offer unique perspectives that would be lost using larger equipment like helicopters. Imagine a high-definition camera attached to a drone programmed to fly over accidents on I-15 and collect data. Seeing as how current technology allows drones to fly for only 10 minutes before battery life diminishes, traffic reporting using a drone would be perfect.

Drones are a creepy technology, but to think of them only in that way limits the possibilities and is naive, while thinking drones are only cool and not frightening is missing the point. Many questions for news organizations will remain unanswered until the FAA’s decisions regarding commercial-use drones are reached in 2015. Flight plans, pilot licenses, safety requirements, first and fourth amendment implications all remain to be seen. Until that time, we should be advocating for their use to our legislatures and representatives.