Drones: The Latest 'Must-Have' Toys for Your Newsroom

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chairman

We often joke in our newsroom about getting a station helicopter, but that’s as unlikely on our public radio budget as a chartered jet to fly to the next EIJ Convention.
 
But what if you could get aerial pictures and video for your website news stories or your television broadcasts at the fraction of the cost of a helicopter and professional pilot? 

That technology exists right now with drones. You might be familiar with drones from spy movies and military TV shows where the CIA sends an unmanned aircraft into dangerous or unfriendly airspace to shoot missiles at targets with deniable culpability. Those flying death machines cost many millions of dollars.
 
But you can go online today and buy what amounts to a toy drone and spend between $300 to $1000. You won’t be able to drop missiles on the broadcast towers of your competition, but you will be able to get amazing pictures and video you can use to supplement your news stories.  
 
Some folks are already doing it.
 
Bill McGraw of Deadline Detroit used a Tretch5000 drone to show what can be done with a drone. 

He flies his drone over a burned out housed in Detroit, through parks, and even through abandoned buildings.
 

Remote controlled flying machines are nothing new, but their capabilities are significantly increasing while their costs are significantly decreasing, and journalists are starting to experiment with the technology.
 
Scott Pham is in charge of the website for KBIA, the public radio station at the University of Missouri.  He recently received a $25,000 technology grant from the school to develop and explore the journalistic uses of drones. 
 
Pham says the drones can get visuals from places reporters can’t go or reach. For example, he says he wished he had a drone when KBIA was covered the intentional break of the Birds Point Levee in 2011 to save Cairo, Illinois from flooding, and to cover the repairs as well from the air. 
 
“I’ve wanted a drone for some time,” Pham told me over the phone, “but it was mostly a joke until the IT program at the university expressed some interest."
 
Pham says the school believes it can build a custom drone for about $4,000 and the University of Missouri has created a graduate class for next spring to investigate the possibilities and ethics around drone journalism.  
 
Other schools are also looking at the possibilities. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is using a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to study the use of drones in its Drone Journalism Lab.
 
There’s a part of me that finds this kind of creepy and fraught with “Big Brother is Watching” issues. While we might trust public radio journalists and academics, there were rumors earlier this week that TMZ had purchased a drone to assist in its paparazzi-style coverage of celebrities. (TMZ denied the rumors in a statement.)
But why wouldn’t they get one? Could websites that cover celebrities resist the urge to fly drones over celebrity weddings, outdoor red carpets, and beaches where starlets might be caught topless?
 
Right now, these "drones" can't really be used like that unless the Federal Aviation Administration steps in to create new rules for journalistic uses of drones.
Current rules require that UAS (or unmanned aircraft systems) have to be within the operator's line of sight, have to stay under 400 feet, have to be flown during the day and have to be away from airports.
 
But journalism organizations would certainly have many reasons to fly drones far from the person controlling it, or on some type of pre-programmed auto-pilot course.
With increasing pressure mounting (the government says in the United States alone, approximately 50 companies, universities, and government organizations are developing and producing over 155 unmanned aircraft designs), the FAA is looking into how it can regulate the coming "Drone Age" safely. They expect to have new rules by 2015.
 
The ethical issues for using drones for journalism will probably be up in the air much after that.
 
Mark Brush of Michigan Radio contributed elements to this blog post.