Drones already are a customary tool of journalists outside the United States, especially across Latin America and Europe. And among the converted it has become a sacred axiom that the development of affordable drones is a media revolution on par with the advent of cellphone cameras and Twitter. Like smartphones, drones are relatively cheap, easy to come by, and simply operated with a toy-plane-like remote. The popular dji Phantom quadcopter costs less than $500 on Amazon and, outfitted with a simple Go-Pro camera, is a novel tool—essentially a flying camera that extends the reach of photographers, citizen-journalists, and paparazzi, who now get “eyes in the sky” much like government and law enforcement have.
Its potential uses are not hard to imagine. The aerial camera could film dramatic footage of a burning oil rig as it sinks into the ocean, then determine the extent of the oil spill by documenting its radius. In a wildfire, a drone could record the valiant efforts of firefighters and, moving faster than the fire itself, scout for survivors trapped in the inferno’s path. Drones could be dispatched on sorties over the arctic, documenting the changing landscape as the ice retreats. They could capture the size of crowds at a protest and the reaction of police—then swoop down for a close up of teargas and flying bricks as the two sides clash. Or they could be used in more unsettling ways: to trail a politician suspected of wrongdoing, for example, even if it means positioning the camera to capture footage in private homes.
Lewis Whyld, a British journalist who has been building drones in his living room for years, went to the Philippines last year to capture the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. In its deadly push through the country, the tropical cyclone had ripped houses and villages apart, burying people under rubble, and scattering large-scale detritus across the landscape. Using his drone, Whyld was able to fly over impassable roads and get to places others couldn’t.
“I was finding dead bodies in areas the authorities couldn’t access,” says Whyld, 36. “It’s not just about beautiful aerial shots. When covering the typhoon, it was accessing areas you couldn’t access on foot.” Whyld, who normally works for The Daily Telegraph in London, sold the footage to CNN and has since used his drone to cover floods in Britain and a hunt for wild wolves in France, among other stories.
American news executives are reticent to talk publicly about drones. Most of the dozen or so news outlets contacted for this story—including The New York Times, The Associated Press, CNN, and NBC—declined to speak about their use of, or plans for, the technology. But within their own newsrooms conversations are underway, with many assessing the legal terrain and ethical issues in advance of the anticipated FAA rules. Matt Waite teaches a course on drone journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is the de facto dean of this nascent field. The professor says that lately he’s been getting requests for advice from news organizations that lay out different scenarios for possible use. “I have had a number of editors contact me and say, ‘Hey, we have a guy on staff who uses it to take pictures on his own time, and we’re thinking of using it. What would happen if we did?’ ” (His advice: Study the FAA regulations, which makes no exception for journalists.)
Gradually, though, drones are slipping into use. On two occasions this spring, drone footage brought in by freelancers or citizen-journalists was used by news organizations to cover breaking stories. On March 19, video from a drone was posted on the website of NBC4 New York showing a blaze at a Brooklyn recycling plant, footage which had been “obtained” by NBC4, according to the website. (A spokeswoman for NBC would not answer questions about the network’s use of the technology.)
A week earlier, when a gas explosion killed eight people and injured at least 70 more in Harlem, Brian Wilson, a 45-year-old systems analyst, jumped in a cab and raced to the scene with his Phantom drone. The footage he captured, which ended up on the New York Daily News website, shows the complete collapse of a building from above as firefighters—some standing on rooftops—douse the blackened rubble with water. (Wilson said the Daily News did compensate him for the footage—which under FAA rules would presumably make it a commercial use. A spokesperson for the Daily News did not respond to questions.)