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The use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in journalism has taken off in recent years.

The BBC has been using them on and off since 2013 to capture video footage from some of its news packages, reporting on topics such as the development of the HS2 rail project in the UK. The broadcaster also benefits from an in-house drone journalism team.

Drones can make reporting from dangerous or remote locations more accessible, but what about their potential beyond just visuals?

John Mills, lecturer and researcher at the University of Central Lancashire's Media Innovation Studio and its Civic Drone Centre, believes drones have great potential for being used to generate data for in-depth journalism, specifically data that is currently not readily available for storytelling.

"There is potential around using sensors and mapping technology with UAVs to create different data sets for journalism to happen or for journalism to spur from beyond," he told Journalism.co.uk in a recent podcast.

"Whether that's to monitor pollution or counting members of a crowd at a demonstration, I think drones and data and journalism is going to be really fascinating to watch over the next couple of years."

In the humanitarian sector, drones are already being used by networks such as UAViators to capture this data during natural disasters or situations where people's lives are at risk, said Mills, so this is an area newsrooms could also potentially experiment in.

"UAVs, drones, as a commercial product have really only developed in the last three to four years in terms of mass production and mass penetration within the marketplace, so I think a lot of people still view drone journalism and drone-captured media content as relatively new.

"But equally, [drones] seem to be adopted at quite some pace."

In February, Russia Works used drones to capture footage of Homs, a Syrian city that has been left destroyed and abandoned following the civil war. The video was sold and rapidly disseminated in Western media, published by news outlets such as the Guardian, The Independent, Mashable and The New York Times among others.

"I would hesitate to call it fully-fledged journalism," Mills said, "but the content is incredibly powerful from an editorial point of view.

"The ability for the drone to fly quite close to the children playing in the street gives a really personal, human element that I think would be difficult to achieve through traditional means like helicopters.

"It's a great example of UAVs being used in a dangerous environment and potentially taking journalists away from the immediacy of the danger, but also the way in which this footage has permeated the media landscape demonstrates the power it has to tell a story."

The usage of drones for commercial purposes is regulated in most countries, which may prevent newsrooms from jumping on board to embrace this new technology. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority established that drones can't be flown higher than 400 feet and drones fitted with cameras are now allowed within 50 metres of people or buildings.

"There needs to be a role for regulation and regulatory authorities, but it's difficult to find that balance between allowing people to do the work that they need to do and doing it in a safe way, in compliance with the law," Mills said.

"Drones are very much seen as new technologies that are emerging on the market and I think there will be a level of hype with that, but I do think there's a great level of sustainability about their use."

Listen to the full podcast with Mills here.

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