Credit: By Don McCullough on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
It was an encounter with metre-long unmanned aircraft that looked like "a torpedo from a Star Trek episode" which inspired Professor Matt Waite to start a Drone Journalism Lab.

He was at a digital mapping conference in California two years ago when he first saw the the X100, a device controlled by a tablet computer. You draw a rectangle on the tablet around the area you want it to photograph and the plane then takes images of the specified area and the pictures are stitched together.

"I thought of every hurricane, flood, forest fire, tornado that I ever covered as a reporter," Waite said.

He handed his wallet to the man from Gatewing, the company which makes the X100, and said he would take one. "The guy laughed and said 'they are $65,000. And by the way they are completely illegal in the United States'."

Undeterred Waite, who has worked as an investigative journalist, an award-winning data journalist and author, as well as a web developer who built Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact.com, took the idea of a Drone Journalism Lab to the dean at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. To Waite's surprise the dean gave him the green light to start researching drones, also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), or UASs (unmanned aerial systems).

The research is taking place while drones for journalism are illegal in the US, although there are rules which permit hobbyists to fly them.

They are legal in the UK but strictly regulated and require a qualification called the BNUC-S. As you can hear in this podcast interview, Thomas Hannen, senior innovations producer at the BBC Global Video Unit, and his colleague Owain Rich, also based in Global News at the BBC, have passed flight exams and are licensed to fly and film within very specific limits. The devices must go no higher that 400 feet and be within a radius of 500 metres and must not be flown near people.

The Drone Journalism Lab

Meanwhile in Nebraska the Drone Journalism Lab has a space in a photography studio at the university and a grant from the Knight Foundation to explore how unmanned copters can be used for journalism.

Waite explained that UAVs will be another tool in a news organisation's arsenal, rather than an immediate replacement for the news helicopter, to film protests, football matches and other gatherings.

"You are not going to see one flying over the Manchester derby the next time United and City play, at least it's not going to happen soon," Waite said. "That's not to say it is not going to happen because it absolutely will. The economics and the abilities and the pay off make way too much sense for this not to happen some day."

How safe are they?

The issue is not only regulatory. There are also safety concerns and there have already been incidents. A UAV flight in New Zealand ended with a battery fire. "There's a significant enough chance that you could have a motor failure or some kind of power problem," Waite said.

The Drone Journalism Lab has two multi-rotor UAVs – although one is now at the bottom of a river. "It decided it didn't want to fly any more and did a controlled set down in the middle of the river and just bubbled under the water and was gone", Waite explained.

And the bladed copter sounds "like a flying lawnmower", he said. "The blades on them are as wide as if you stretch a grown man's hand out from the tip of his thumb to the tip of his pinky. If you were to get your hand in them, or some other fleshy part of your body, you would get gashed pretty quickly and have go to the hospital and get some stitches."

But, as Waite explained, "there are lots of stories to do that don't involve flying over people's heads" and they are bound to get more reliable and safer. "The technology is improving at a breathtaking speed."

What stories are drones best suited to?

If the current technology means safety is an issue and current regulations mean they cannot be flown over people, what kind of stories are drones best suited to?

I think this will be a very useful tool for journalists in the very near futureProfessor Matt Waite on drones
When Waite first saw the drone that looked like the Star Trek torpedo he thought of weather stories. And it is these stories – of floods, droughts, agriculture, geology and geography – where drones can take footage that shows the scale of the story.

Last autumn those at the Drone Journalism Lab filmed this video documenting the drought which affected Nebraska last summer, believing they could operate as researchers under hobbyist rules.

"We got so little rain and it had a pretty dramatic affect on the landscape," Waite said. The team went out with a small UAV on the Platte River, which runs through the middle of Nebraska.

"We flew only about 250 feet in the air, which is below the limit hobbyists can fly, and just aimed the camera up and down the river.

"You could see there was precious little water in the river, it was really just a sandy creek bed, and you could see dead and dry vegetation extended off into the horizon. It was pretty dramatic to do just that: just fly straight up in the air and get a wide look at an event that had massive geographic scale," Waite said.

"One of the real promises of using drones for journalism," he explained, "is being able to offer readers and viewers a unique perspective on a news event and help put the scale of it into context in a way that words just can't do. I think this will be a very useful tool for journalists in the very near future."

What are the technical possibilities and limitations

The torpedo drone that Waite was tempted by may cost $65,000, but there are drones on the market that start at about $30 and fit in the palm of your hand.

There is also a drone called the Parrot AR that is sold on Amazon for less than £300 and uses your iPhone, iPad or Android device as the control. And as Waite explained, you can "tap into the developer software development kit and control it autonomously".

But in terms of devices "that journalists might actually use", costs start at around $1,000 and go up to $500,000.

They can lift a DSLR camera and get stunning high-definition video. But battery life and weight – they are about half the size of a house brick – impose limitations. "Battery life is 15 minutes," Waite told us. "If you want a bigger lens you are talking more like eight or 10 minutes.

"That's pretty consistent across battery-powered platforms. You could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a commercial product, normally reserved for the defence industry, and you may get 20 minutes of flight time out of it."

Waite and his team usually use small, lightweight GoPro cameras. The device the Lab owns has a theoretical weight limit of about 6lbs, the weight of a small baby, which is more than sufficient to carry the necessary kit, according to Waite.

There are also gas-powered UAVs, which can stay in the air for significantly longer periods, but they are expensive and have different regulations.

They are effectively "miniaturised helicopters", Waite said, explaining that he has seen videos of them filming road rallies and off-road motorcycle races. They track at quite a pace and the resulting footage "looks like the camera is fixed to a boom, it's just moving along so smoothly".

"Your average freelancer or local newspaper is not going to be in that market any time soon, but that doesn't mean they are not in the game here. There's pretty much any level of device that you could possibly want."

When will they be in the air?

In the UK there is research being carried out and at least two people within the BBC have the qualifications to fly them. In the US it will be at least two or three years before drones can be flown by news outlets.

"Congress mandated the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to come up with rules by September 2015," Waite explained, "and the FAA is already a year behind."

"It's not so simple to say that in September 2015 or September 2016 you'll be able to call up the local office of the FAA and say 'I would like a permit to fly my UAV to do journalism'. The reason for that is this is America and we have an abundance of lawyers and I think that once those regulations are put into place everyone is going to sue everyone."

Waite predicts that while the courts debate principles, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and privacy, "there's going to be a lot of litigation". It will be "at least five to seven years before those are settled matters" he said.

But Waite thinks that some bigger news outlets, those which already have helicopters, will have drones as soon as the legislation passes in the US.

"I think that all of the major news organisations will probably have them the moment that they are legal. How they will use them will ultimately depend on how willing they are to use their general counsel's office."

Why the time is right to debate drones for journalism

So is this not all tremendously frustrating, as Waite watches while the BBC secure permits and views footage of Niagara Falls, of protests in Turkey and in Poland shot by hobbyists?

"It is and it isn't," he said. "I remain steadfast in my belief that this gap in time between when the technology exists for us to be able to do this and the regulation exists is a gift. As frustrating as it might be this is one of the few instances where journalists are going to have the time and opportunity to consider how they might ethically use a digital tool before that tool is thrust upon them.

"We can consider what the impacts to personal privacy are, we can consider what might be a good use of a UAV in a newsroom, and what might not. "

As for those with concerns about possible use by the paparazzi, Waite explained that this is already happening. For example, UAVs have already been used to photograph celebrities on the French Riviera, and this report explains how someone tried to to use one to photograph Tina Turner's recent wedding. In the end the paparazzi shot of the wedding was instead filmed from a manned helicopter, "same as it ever was".

"If you are wanting to stalk a celebrity with a UAV the batteries last 15 minutes. Good luck," said Waite.

"Those of us in the business who are particularly sensitive to ethics and good use and not wanting to alienate our audience by doing something stupid, this time is time we had better spend talking about those things."

For more on drone journalism see this feature we published in June. You can also follow the Drone Journalism Lab here.

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