Camera-equipped drones, already on the edge of becoming mainstream, could help recast the balance of power in our information-hungry society.
Drones could give journalists and bloggers powers of aerial sight — powers once reserved for government agencies. But are the costs of these high-flying recorders too high?
Photographic and video cameras, mounted on a new generation of small, inexpensive, remote-controlled helicopters or planes, are already helping journalists and others capture the view from above. A few examples:
- In December 2011, a Fair Elections rally in Moscow used a remote-control model helicopter to get government-independent aerial photos of the crowd.
- In summer of 2013, a drone videotaped a police clash at a demonstration in Istanbul. The drone was reportedly later shot down, apparently by police.
- In March 2014, a business systems expert shot half an hour of aerial video in East Harlem after a gas explosion demolished two buildings.
- CNN has an ongoing request for crowdsourced drone aerial footage.
- Using drone imagery, Wake Forest University created a 3D model of Duke Energy’s coal ash spill in North Carolina, independent of the utility-favoring state regulators.
- Drone maker DJI has demonstrated spectacular video of its Phantom drone flying into a volcano in the Tanna island of Vanuatu.
- In 2012, a camera drone flying near Dallas discovered blood-red spots in the Trinity River. It turned out that pig blood was being emptied via an underground pipe from the Columbia Meat packing plant, located on a creek that feeds into the river. The company was indicted on 18 criminal counts, and a trial is pending.
The technology to make all this possible is already here, and it’s getting better all the time. For instance, Parrot’s forthcoming Bebop drone will have a 14 megapixel fisheye camera and can be controlled from as much as 2 kilometers away.
Camera drones are perfect for understanding large-scale physical events. They can “do damage-assessment stories in a matter of minutes,” Matt Waite told VentureBeat. Waite is a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska and the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab there. It’s one of two such academic labs in the U.S., the other being at the University of Missouri.
These flying imagers are becoming major disruptors in the aerial photography market, he noted, meaning “the cost of aerial shots comes way down.”
“But the more interesting future,” Waite told us, “is not as a video or photography platform but as a data platform.” Drones can be used for aerial mapping, for instance, or for aerial spectral imaging, tracking the impact of drought or water flow.
“It expands the kind of journalism you can do,” he said, providing a major new tool in the evolution of data-based research and reporting. This enables “stories that wouldn’t be feasible because of the cost,” Waite said.
Camera-equipped drones “can quantify changes on the ground” that governments may be missing or hiding, according to Matt Schroyer, founder and president of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ). His fledging organization, founded in 2011, claims more than 200 members in 25 countries who are interested in setting professional standards for this new way of getting stories.
But the difference between professional and amateur standards is nebulous in this emerging practice. That drone flight that found pig blood in the Trinity River in Texas, for instance, was not a professional venture. Since it was kept under 400 feet above the ground and since the unmanned aerial vehicle was kept within sight of its operators, it did not need any legal approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
On the other hand, commercial drone flights at any height — such as those conducted by paid journalists — and all flights above 400 feet need a special permit from the FAA. The agency is only providing those on a very limited basis for government and law enforcement agencies, not journalists.
Although it is moving forward in dealing with drones, the FAA has fallen behind, even by its own schedule. Currently, it has contracted with six field sites around the U.S. to test various issues, like technology, safety, and traffic control, but it’s not clear when the tests will happen or whether a clear policy will result from them. (The FAA has not responded to our request for clarification on the current status.)
This lack of legal clarity has kept Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab from actually practicing drone journalism.
Waite told us that the lab, started in 2011, initially “bought some drones, did some stories with them, and then got a cease and desist order [from the FAA].” As a result, Waite said, the lab is not actually teaching drone journalism right now because there would be “much objection to teaching students a skill they can’t use.” Instead, students are building a few drones and practice-flying them in indoor facilities. Missouri’s Lab has received a similar order and has similarly gone inside.
Eventually, the FAA will clarify its rules. But that’s not the big question.
The big question
Do we really want camera drones in our skies? A recent Pew Internet poll on views about the future, for instance, found that 63 percent of respondents thought it would be “a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.”
The poll did not distinguish between camera drones for amateur or professional journalists, camera drones for real estate agents, or transportation drones for Amazon’s delivery service. It also didn’t provide the respondents’ reasons, but privacy and safety probably figured high on the list.
Our society’s furiously competitive drive for information could create a future of many small, unmanned aircraft — some hovering with extreme agility — equipped with high resolution cameras, data-capturing equipment, and/or long-range microphones.
And how long until military-grade satellite image capture technology detailing imagery from miles away becomes technically and economically feasible for companies and individuals? If the market prevails, it is reasonable to expect that not just professional journalists but any amateur blogger, any student, and any interest group could send these relatively cheap units skyward.
And will that door, propped open by the First Amendment, only allow journalists and not, say, data-capturing marketing companies looking for juicy demographic data or real estate agents scouting out your property to assess its resale value? Or any paparazzi.
One can expect swarms of camera drones would literally zoom around public figures – or anyone who happens to get caught in the glare of media visibility.
If the National Security Agency’s bulk capture of your metadata is a privacy violation, what about unrestricted photography of you from the sky? Which corporation is going to be the first pioneer to assemble a fleet of networked drones to track people visually throughout the day, adding that data to its growing database of personal digital profiles?
The Professional Society of Drone Journalists is, of course, aware of these issues. Its budding ethics position is, “Drone journalists should maintain all of the ethical expectations [of] journalists who don’t use drones, with the added responsibility that comes with operating a flying vehicle.”
‘Flying lawn mowers’
That’s the rub: a flying vehicle.
“The safety aspect is something a lot of people are underplaying,” Waite told us. He described the rapidly spinning blades on drone planes and helicopters as “flying lawn mowers.”
“What I genuinely fear is some knucklehead using these after a protest,” he said, and the vehicle gets too close to the crowd or crashes, “cutting someone’s face.”
“In New York,” Schroyer mentioned, “a man was partially decapitated by a RC [remote-control] helicopter” that he was piloting, killing him.
Waite also noted, “We need to be talking about safety.” He suggested that such a conversation could include such options as “making devices aware of other devices [or] kinetic parachutes” that rapidly deploy if a crash is imminent. Or perhaps FAA licenses with actual background checks, which Schroyer calls “a kind of DMV.” Or extensive training, like the obstacle course test that Schroyer said RC pilots have to fly to get permits in Australia.
Another option would be dramatically limiting the number of allowed drones, essentially restricting journalists to using vehicles from a shared pool of video drones, like the pool feeds that news organizations sometimes use for certain hard-to-get shots.
Balloon-based aircraft are another possibility, although Waite pointed out that they are hard to control, especially in windy weather.
There’s also the safety interference issue.
In Ohio last month, for instance, a part-time wedding videographer was arrested when he did not bring down his camera-equipped drone as ordered by local police. Instead, he kept videotaping about 75 feet above where a pickup truck had hit a tree, with the intention of supplying the footage to local TV news. Police said they told him to land the vehicle because a medical helicopter was about to land for the truck’s injured driver, and the drone was endangering the helicopter.
Earlier this month, the FAA reported about an incident in March, when a U.S. Airways airliner nearly collided with a drone at about 2,500 feet near the Tallahassee, Fla., airport.
“Imagine a metal and plastic object — especially with [a] big lithium battery — going into a high-speed engine,” an FAA official told CNN. “The results could be catastrophic.”
Clearly, full-sized aircraft also represent sky-borne threats, but their built-in barriers to entry — cost, training, and fairly rigorous licensing — keep their numbers in check and their pilots qualified. A full-sized Cessna or a helicopter tracking your movements would at least be obvious. They also do not threaten to become as numerous as, say, anyone interested in getting a high-angle advantage on the competition.
Because the current regulatory climate is so uncertain, Schroyer told us that even the PSDJ doesn’t yet have a formal policy about whether journalists should start flying drones in the United States. Current best practices, he said, include “staying below 400 feet, avoiding airspace around airports and hospitals, yielding to manned aircraft, and observing safe distance from first responders.”
“The best option,” he told us, “is a balance of safety, [privacy], and coverage.”
But where is that option? Individual states are proposing and enacting various laws to restrict or enable drone journalism.
In the meantime, there’s no clear vision — from the FAA or anyone else — that will allow a river polluted with blood to be revealed by an amateur with a camera drone without polluting the skies with new risks to safety and privacy.
The FAA is only one part of this equation. Journalists, Amazon, and data trackers need to get their heads out of the clouds and come up with something better than the First Amendment to protect us from a future skyline dotted with flying lawn mowers holding cameras.