Drones play a controversial role in a largely unseen U.S. war carried out beyond the country’s declared battlefields. Iran claimed to have shot down a U.S. drone along its eastern border Sunday. In Pakistan, U.S. drone strikes target terrorist networks in the northwest. In Yemen, a U.S. drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a propagandist for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and killed his 16-year-old American son.
But drones are moving outside the military sphere and into the private sector. The FAA has allowed for more the two hundred permits on civilian drone applications, the Los Angeles Times reports. And though it has not opened the national airways to everyone, it seems less a question if they will allow drones, and more a question of when they will.
For journalism professor Matt Waite, the time is ripe to study how drones will affect his industry. This November, he started the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study the legality, ethicality and practicality of drones in journalism. The lab’s site describes drones as “an ideal platform for journalism.”
The site keys to one recent examples of drone journalism outside the U.S., in which a man captured a protest in Poland by attaching a camera to an unmanned helicopter:
The Daily also used the method to show the breadth of damage inflicted by the Tuscaloosa tornado. In both examples, the footage manages to capture a sprawling scene a reporter on the ground would rarely be able to see.
For shrinking newsrooms staffs, drones that cost around $40,000 sound a bit more budget-friendly than helicopters that cost in the millions. Drones could also provide much better coverage of natural disasters, such as the widespread fires in Texas, or in a nuclear disaster such as the Fukushima-Daachii plant. Drones could also be put to use in media blackout zones, such as during the Occupy Wall Street eviction, when journalists were barred from Zuccotti Park out of safety concerns.
There can be uses beyond just photographing and surveillance. Matthew Schroyer, a data journalist, wrote in a Google Group post about drone journalism, saying he could see the technology being used to take water or air samples or to scan for topographical data to make assessments about industrial impact on the enviornment.
With the possibilities, also come concerns. The technology raises major privacy flags, some of which The Post’s Scott Wilson details in his portrait of life under the constant buzz of drones in the Gaza Strip. In a world post-phone-hacking scandal, the technology could easily be taken advantage of by celebrity trackers. It could also mean journalists could be kept under survelliance as well.
Waite’s lab recognizes those fears. “If drones are to be a tool for journalists, they’re going to have to answer questions and criticisms like these,” the site states.
Should flying a remote-control plane be a new prerequisite for journalism school?