The Rise of the Drone-Journalists

July 16, 2013 • Digital News, Specialist Journalism • by

The market for drones is expanding rapidly and will soon play an important role in the way journalism works, according to a new report.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that in the next ten years, the market for drones will be worth 190 billion Euros.

In the U.S. alone, companies produce 146 different models of flying drones. This data, included in a new report published by the University of Oxford-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, clearly sheds a light on how flying drones are increasingly becoming an ever-present part of our daily life.

Researchers David Goldberg, Mark Corcoran, and Robert G. Picard, argue that in the future flying drones, or remotely piloted aircrafts (RPAs), or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), will play a major role in the media and news industry. Born as military equipment, drones are now being implemented for many different civilian and domestic uses – and news gathering is no different: “use of aerial platforms is not new to journalism,” the researchers say, and media outlets won’t miss out on the opportunity to shoot stunning video or images of a riot by simply flying over the scene with a cheap unmanned, small and agile robot. In fact, news media companies have been exploring the use of flying drones for a while and examples of news reporting done with the help of drones are beginning to multiply. For journalists, there are a variety of reasons to use drones.

One problem that arises is that newsrooms still have not settled on the correct terminology to describe drones. In news stories and popular parlance, UAVs are usually defined as “drones.” The word has a clear military origin and refers to “pilotless, radio-controlled military target towing aircraft.” The press have used the word drone in this capacity, to report on the now infamous transparency-lacking military activities of the U.S. Army in Pakistan, where heavily armed Predator UAVs are used to strike sensible targets. But apart from their military use, according to the report, there are “hundreds of different types of small, cheap multi-rotor and fixed-wing UAVs” taking to the skies. And some have the potential to provide images and information a journalist needs.

For instance, the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 is a best-selling commercial model, available in consumer electronic shops for around 270 Euros. It holds two cameras – one with HD quality – and can be controlled via a smartphone or tablet at up to 50 meters range and for 12 minutes of flight. Most civilian drones can quickly fly over a possible newsworthy scenario: there is clear potential for use by journalists and newsrooms. Drones can be used to cover natural disasters, street riots, and major sporting events, or to get access from the sky to isolated or closed areas by adding aerial footage – meaning drones operate as an “effective platform […] for images from above and […] provide new ways of covering stories at ground level,” according to the RISJ report.

For instance, back in 2011, AirPano launched a drone over a riot in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow to capture images from the sky. At the same time, an anonymous Polish activist group filmed a riot in Warsaw by using a small RoboKopter. But more recently, even “official” news outlets are beginning to use drones for reporting purposes. For example, the Australian news program 90 Minutes shot documentary footage high above an immigration detention center located on Christmas Island, after its staff were denied access to the area. More recently, FoxSports launched their Foxkopter to film footage over a match of the Twenty20 Big Bash Cricket series in addition to Australian Seven Network TV’s Sunday Night, who used drone-reporting for two different stories, including an investigation into the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh: a UAV filmed several beaches where ships at the end of their useful life were sent to be broken up, destroying the landscape.

It’s important to mention how these examples are not “live news gathering,” and according to the report, “were produced by considerable planning, conducted in a clearly defined location, [and] contracted out to flight operators with appropriate aviation approvals.” But still, flying drones raise a variety of issues. According to the report, the first concern is how drones will be used “journalistically.” For instance, flying drones can be used for investigative journalism, allowing flights over locations journalists have been excluded from. This, according to the report, “raises significant ethical and legal issues that would need consideration within newsrooms and the profession and to inform uses that would be made of technologies,” including concerns regarding privacy, surveillance, civil liberties, and safety.

For these reasons, according to researchers, “understanding the policy and regulatory environment for unmanned aerial vehicles is crucial for news executives.” When using flying drones, media companies and journalists will also have to pay attention to technical regulations issued by authorities ordering the use of airspace, because flying drones are commonly defined as “aircraft,” meaning regulations to monitor the use of flying drones is “currently being made in parliaments and administrative agencies,” according to the report. In the United Kingdom, for example, the UK Air Navigation Order distinguishes between using drones for recreational purposes or any other purpose, such as shooting video. Similarly in Australia, it is possible to fly a small drone but the use of it to record videos or to take pictures is technically illegal. Regulations for civilian drone use are generally a work-in-progress. Cross-national institutions are discussing flying drone regulations;  the European Commission who recently released a report on this topic, and the  International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recently updated their rules in order to include civilian use of UAVs in the aviation system and its body of safety rules.

From a regulatory point of view, Australia is one of the most drone-friendly countries in the world. According to the report, Australia introduced the first civil UAV legislation in 2002, when flying drones were not as sensitive a topic as they are now, and “acknowledging that technology advances have rendered these regulations obsolete, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is now proposing a radical rewrite to the rules that could result in hundreds of small commercially operated UAVs taking to the skies, including those operated by media.” Currently, 33 operators in Australia have been granted CASA approval for scientific research, surveying, and aerial photography. So far, the main principle seems to be: “the larger the drone, the more stringent the controls.”

Unless the uncertainty surrounding drones increases, RISJ researchers are sure “remotely piloted aircraft will be common in the skies of many nations in the near future because they offer distinct opportunities and advantages to journalism.”  Probably not by chance, former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, who left journalism in 2012 to found 3D Robotics, a start-up company specializing in the manufacturing of drones. Anderson, whose company is already selling up to 1000 drones a month, shouldn’t be surprised if a majority of his drones end up being parked in front of newsrooms around the world.

Photo Credits: ausdemFF/Flickr CC

Article translated from the original Italian “L’ascesa dei droni giornalisti” by the author

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