Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Droning On, or Not

So we got our first drone/videocamera system a while back (at UTK's School of Journalism & Electronic Media), just before the FAA came out with its restrictions on drone use.  And checking with the University's legal office, they initially said we should limit use to over University property; then said better not use it until FAA figures out rules.  And so it's been on a shelf in our equipment room for the last year.

It's not that we, and other journalism programs, don't see the potential of drones to gather information and images.  One early application of drone journalism was its use to cover the aftermath of Alabama tornadoes in 2011. [The FAA started an investigation of that "unauthorized" drone usage, arguing that it violated its regulations (as yet, no public announcement of actions)].

On the international front, the Bangkok Post used drones to cover the political protests last year, Meanwhile, drones are finding widespread applications in filmmaking - especially documentaries (where drones offer significant cost savings over renting helicopters) - and other uses related to imaging (real estate) and monitoring (disaster relief, agriculture, etc.).   Drones are proving to be potentially very useful tools, albeit with real concerns about potential loss of privacy, or damages from drones hitting things (power lines, other aerial vehicles, even people). There's certainly enough to keep a few academic drone journalism centers occupied.
In the meantime, the FAA has banned most commercial drone use, while it works out its concerns and develops drone-specific rules.
In the meantime, this summer's seen an emergence of interest in drone journalism - based on some really good examples internationally, and a spate of horrified reactions when a (thankfully false) report surfaced that celebrity-news outfit TMZ had applied for a license to operate drones (to peek into celebrity homes and back yards).  The report was false, but the renewed interest in the ability to use drones in news gathering isn't.
 A number of "drone journalism" programs and centers have developed at University journalism programs. The initial problem they all face is getting permission to actually use drones for news gathering and news reporting.  Initially, many thought they could get waivers in the form of FAA "Certificate of Authorization" (COA) program designed for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).  That program allowed UAS use for research purposes, by "public operators (i.e. government agencies) of a specific drone within a specified geographic location for a limited period of time."  Even if the program was appropriate, the regulations require advance notice and approvals for each use, and severely limits the area and times of use - conditions that curtail the utility of drones for spot or breaking news coverage.
We profs would probably try sneaking drones into our journalism curriculum anyway, as we could identify specific times and places for class demonstrations.  However, the FAA indicated quite early on that "drones" were not the kind of "unmanned aircraft system" their current regulations covered, and until they could come up with new rules specifically for drones, most commercial drone usage (including for news coverage) was banned. So for now, the ability of most programs to use drones in journalism coverage and education is effectively curtailed.
That hasn't stopped some "drone journalism" centers and programs from partnering with news organizations to "research" drone journalism.  One, a joint project by Georgia Tech and CNN, to “investigate technologies, operating procedures, and crew skill requirements that will enable the safe and effective use of UASs for news coverage”, seems willing to continue despite FAA limits (part of that project is looking at aeronautical control systems, which the FAA considers UAS research).  Many others (Nebraska, Missouri, South Florida) have tried applying for COAs, despite the limitations.  But those approvals have not been coming.
Just as the FAA quickly decided that drones weren't UAS and thus able to operate within those guidelines, the FAA seem to have decided that drone journalism and other drone applications aren't what they meant by UAS research and were unlikely to get COAs.  Last month, the FAA said so explicitly, releasing a Memorandum that indicated that the only allowed use covered by a COA was for aeronautical research, which was restricted to research on airplane and aeronautical control systems.  The memorandum also indicated that the use of off-the-shelf drones for other research purposes (including journalism) would not be eligible for COAs.  The FAA suggested that public universities looking at drone applications wouldn't qualify as "public operators," either.

“The public aircraft statute exists to free governments from regulation, not to confer a benefit on government entities that is unavailable to civil operators. ... The public aircraft statute and UAS COAs do not exist to create a loophole of exclusive operation, or to allow state universities to become exclusive providers of certain aircraft operations by any entity willing to fund them as ‘research.’ ”
This certainly has slowed development of drone journalism here in the US; at least until 2015, when the FAA hopes to have new rules in place for drone operation.  Still, that delay hasn't slowed discussion of potential ethical issues, and consideration of whether the news industry should develop  normative guidelines for the use of drones in news reporting. Among the top ethical issues is the question of privacy (the TMZ/paparazzi issue), public concern that news organizations could be contributing to the growth of surveillance in public life, and the likelihood that drone coverage of criminal activities is likely to be subpoenaed by police (conflicts of interest).  Then there's the strong possibility of unanticipated effects, like drones hitting people or remote operators losing control. 

It's going to be an interesting new world with drone journalism, if and when the FAA allows it.

Sources: The Debate on Drones: Navigation for Journalists, PBS Mediashift, EducationShift
Ethics Aloft: The Pros and Cons of Journalists Using Drones,  PBS Mediashift, EducationShift.
University Hopes To Lend Drones To Students, May Face FAA Challenge,
Unmanned Aircraft Systems Alert: FAA memorandum may jeopardize certain state university research projects involving unmanned aircraft, Legal Alert from Kramer Leving Naftalis & Frankel laaw firm.

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