Drone Journalism: Remote Robots Change the Perspective

A U.S. Navy helicopter surveillance drone hovers.

by Gabby LaVerghetta

Drone journalism is here and it has the potential to significantly change reporting as we know it. Robert Mackey writes about the phenomenon in The New York Times’ The Lede blog.

Last week, police arrested reporters at Occupy Wall Street protests in New York as well as Richmond, Atlanta and Milwaukee. Apparently the journalists shooting video on their mobile devices looked too much like the activists doing the same thing.

Mackey implies that technology will provide the solution to this problem. He connects the Occupy arrests to a recent announcement from a Polish firm about drones. Earlier this month, RoboKopter released spectacular aerial footage of a protest in Warsaw.  The footage was captured by a flying drone.

Drone journalism is actually not unprecedented in the United States. Several months ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigated News Corp’s use of a drone for The Daily. The unmanned aircraft gathered footage of a storm’s aftermath in Alabama and flooding in North Dakota.

While the use of drones in the military is commonplace, the rules regarding civilian operation of drones are more ambiguous. The FAA states that drones are not to be used for commercial purposes, which would seem to include newsgathering.

At this point, drone journalism is far from standard practice anywhere in the world. The inherent privacy issues mean many news outlets will be reluctant to get on board. Still, the concept merits some thought. How would journalism change if drones did become routine tools?

As mentioned above, drones present a threat to personal privacy. Progeny Systems Corporation, a firm contracted by the U.S. military, is developing drones capable of facial recognition. The technology would revolutionize intelligence operations, and it could be used for so much more. Some celebrity photographers have already, in fact, used a less sophisticated unmanned aircraft to follow Paris Hilton on the French Riviera. So much for getting lost in a crowd.

Forbes also reported the introduction of a hacker drone at the BlackHat and Defcon security conferences last summer.  The Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform (WASP) can impersonate cell phone towers and crack passwords, among other covert functions.

Despite these concerns, the drones have obvious advantages for journalism. Misguided arrests on American soil are, relatively speaking, only a minor problem. So far this year, 40 journalists have been killed worldwide. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Iraq the world’s most dangerous place to be a journalist in 2010.   Mexico, Pakistan, and most recently, Burma (also known as Myanmar), are not much safer. Flying drones could collect footage of war and conflict without putting journalists in harm’s way. Obviously, they could never replace the work that reporters do on the ground every day.

However, I can’t help but see a slippery slope. Sending out drones for certain scenarios such as protests, natural disasters, and war sounds harmless enough. But what are the ethics of using the gathered footage to pursue another story? Drones could be very powerful journalistic tools, and therefore should be adopted with caution.

(The photo is from the U.S. Navy and is in the public domain. To see more video demonstrations from the Polish RoboKopter please see below.)

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