Eye in the sky

Drones are cheap, simple, and potential game changers for newsrooms

(Yuko Shimizu)

On the morning of February 1, Pedro Rivera was lying in bed, listening to the crackle of the police scanner as he roused himself awake. There was an alert about a fatal car crash on Main Street just a few miles from his home in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a Saturday, his day off, but the 29-year-old journalist for the local CBS affiliate leapt up, threw on some clothes, and ran to his car. Resting on the seat beside him was a small, white drone.

A block away from the crash, Rivera parked his car and launched the whirring device, its four spinning rotors and red-and-green blinking lights giving it the appearance of a toy. Rivera let the drone hover about 175 feet above the ground. The footage he captured from its tiny camera gave an unsettling panorama of the crash scene, including the car’s wrinkled steel frame compressed into a brick wall as police worked the scene. Rivera’s tape had a vivid, eyewitness feel that far surpassed the quality of shots from cameramen behind yellow police tape. Plus, Rivera could watch his video in real time, on his iPhone.

Before long, three police officers approached. “The first thing out of the cop’s mouth was, ‘Do you work for the media?’ ” Rivera recounted later. “I said, ‘Yes, I work for Channel 3 but I’m here on my own time.’ ” The officers ordered him to leave, and so Rivera packed up his drone and headed home.

At work the following Monday, his supervisor called Rivera into his office and said police had complained that his drone compromised the accident scene’s integrity. Rivera tried pushing back but was told to go home. A few days later, he noticed his work email had been cut off and soon after the television station issued a statement: “WFSB does not own or utilize any drone devices. The person identified in the police report is a temporary, on-call employee of WFSB. However, he was not working for the station on the day of the incident. He was not assigned to shoot video of the crime scene by WFSB and has never been compensated for any drone video.” WFSB did not return calls to elaborate, and Rivera hasn’t been asked back to work.

From an incident in which drone video was never even aired has now come a legal case that could play an important role in the fast-churning debate over whether an aerial drone is an appropriate device for journalists. On February 18, Rivera filed a lawsuit against the Hartford Police Department and two of its officers, alleging violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The suit asserts that one of the officers chilled the plaintiff’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and was inspired by an improper motive: to prevent the public from seeing video reports of what police officers do in an investigation. The Hartford police haven’t responded to the suit.

Rivera’s assertion is breaking open a discussion that media organizations may not yet be ready to have: Are the kinds of ethical and legal regimes that journalists have operated under for decades being frayed by a new technology that pits the right to privacy against freedom of the press?

To Rivera, this has become a war on cameras. “The police don’t want any more eyes on them than they have to have.” He sees taking photographs in public spaces as an established right and argues that the use of drones is likewise a protected freedom. “All this drone is, is a camera,” he said. “And if helicopters aren’t banned, why would a drone be?”

For the media, drones could be a game changer, with powers that could fundamentally transform a journalist’s ability to tell stories. The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits the commercial use of drones, and if a media outlet purchases freelance drone footage recorded domestically, that is considered commercial use. But the ban has been challenged with initial success and, separately, Congress has ordered the FAA to draw up new rules. A consensus is gradually emerging that existing prohibitions are crumbling and that more widespread use of drones by journalists could come as early as next year.

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.)

“Like many other professional and citizen journalists, I had come to document a significant event in our city,” Wilson later wrote on LinkedIn. However, members of The New York City Drone User Group, a self-described “group of amateur and professional drone users,” were infuriated by Wilson’s flyover and debated it that night on a Google Hangout call. To them, it seemed an irresponsible, attention-seeking gesture at a time when discretion was better advised. As someone wrote in a group-wide email: “Put simply, please don’t be that guy (or girl).”

A spokesman for the FAA said the agency is investigating both the Harlem and Brooklyn cases. If it takes action against the Daily News or NBC4, that would clearly disrupt the fragile status quo, since it has rarely disciplined media outlets. Likewise, no news organizations have challenged the FAA on First Amendment grounds, even if experts say there may be a case to be made.

The media’s squeamish approach to the subject reflects the complexity of the issues and the ability of drones to disrupt current thinking about bedrock issues like privacy, surveillance, safety, and competitiveness.

“We as journalists have to start thinking about the impact of these flying devices,” says Waite, who started the country’s first drone journalism lab in 2011, after developing the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact. “Are they harassing or distracting? Do they cause panic? Are we harming people psychologically or needlessly invading their privacy? I talk with the students about these ethical questions: Just because you can, should you?”

Steve Coll is the dean of the Journalism School at Columbia University and has written widely on the technology and its uses by the military. Drones, he says, “capture people’s anxieties and imagination and so it’s natural to get excited about taking possession of that technology for your own purposes.” But he says, before deploying that flying camera, journalists should ask themselves: “What can you use a drone for, that you can’t achieve by other means, that really matters, that is in the public interest, and is not just for the sake of doing it?”

Public interest is a frequently raised consideration in this debate, and also a complicated notion that can be broadly interpreted. Yet as government and law enforcement increasingly inhabit the sky, it opens the door for journalists to ask why they should be excluded. Safety concerns about drones, particularly if the journalists directing them don’t know what they’re doing, are hard to deny. But it is the matter of privacy that draws the most ire from advocates, who say this is a spurious argument when so-called Peeping Tom laws already exist that would make exceptionally invasive drone use illegal. And why wouldn’t these privacy concerns apply to the government’s extensive use of surveillance? They see it more simply: Photography is photography, a protected right that shouldn’t be revoked because a new technology came along.

In online drone forums, there is much talk about restraint and self-policing, and the dominant view is that, eventually, social norms will evolve to regulate uses of the technology, much in the way codes evolved around cellphone use. It may seem a tech-topian argument, but the power of social norms should be evident to anyone who’s ever tried taking a call in a movie theater or using a smartphone to capture video of some stranger walking by. Additional restraints might come in the form of professional ethics and organizational standards.

Scott Pham once taught a drone journalism course at the University of Missouri that ended up being grounded by the FAA. While the course was active, one of his students decided to test the investigative powers of drones and went out after class to capture video of oil companies taking water from the Mississippi River for use in fracking. Pham now works for NBC in San Francisco but he hasn’t given up his crusading belief in drones as instruments that balance individual power with that of government. “We’re living in a world where our every line of communication can be intercepted,” says Pham. “What’s not alienating is having your personal drone. It’s frustrating that people can’t see that it’s a tool of empowerment. But people don’t think the media’s interests are aligned with their own.”

It doesn’t help matters that the word “drone” carries military connotations and suggests an impossibly broad taxonomy. As enthusiasts point out, the only thing that the military’s multimillion-dollar, Hellfire-missile-carrying, mq-9 Reaper drone has in common with the Styrofoam-and-plastic Parrot quadcopter common in private use is that both can fly.

Dianne Feinstein is one lawmaker familiar with both types of drones, and the US senator from California now challenges the assertion that the skies should be completely open. Last January, she encountered one flying overhead just outside her window. During a Senate committee hearing on the future of unmanned aviation, she testified about how a group protesting government surveillance had sent the drone flying outside her house. “I went to the window to peek out and see who was there. And there was a drone right there at the window looking out at me,” Feinstein said. “What kind of camera was mounted on it? What kind of microphone? Could an enterprising person have fastened a firearm to it? These are questions that demand answers. Even with civilian drone technology in its infancy, privacy concerns are significant.”

Virtually every state in the union is boring into the issues Feinstein raises, and so far nine states have enacted legislation regulating the use of drones. In Connecticut, state lawmakers recently proposed a bill that would add penalties for committing a crime with a drone, including 10 years in prison for voyeurism, stalking, and harassment, and up to 20 years for using a drone as a deadly weapon.

“Drones can be used for a lot of amazing things—we certainly don’t want to prohibit people from using drones in a productive manner—but there’s potential for abuse,” says Democratic State Rep. James Albis of East Haven. “It’s a conversation that a lot of states are having, whether they are blue, red, or purple states. It’s fascinating to see the various dialogues.”

Whereas the Connecticut legislation is intended to protect the privacy rights of individuals, states including Florida, Illinois, Montana, Oregon, and Tennessee are more concerned about making sure law enforcement officials don’t overreach. In Texas, meanwhile, the debate has centered on protecting landowners from the aerial gaze of environmentalists or animal rights groups. Their concern arose after a hobbyist flew a remotely operated aircraft along the Trinity River in Texas and by chance recorded large amounts of pig blood pouring into a tributary creek from a nearby slaughterhouse. After the hobbyist made the footage public, the facilities were shuttered and the company was charged with illegally dumping industrial waste.

In response, the Texas legislature passed a bill establishing criminal penalties for anyone who—using a remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft—takes photographs of private property without the owner’s permission. Margot Kaminsky, executive director of the Information Society Project and a lecturer in law at Yale, considers the new law problematic. The interesting question right now is “how to balance the First Amendment right of the photographer with the privacy interest of the person being photographed,” she says. “And the states are trying to find the appropriate balance.”

Outside the US, drones are finding a more welcoming legal climate. As a visit to YouTube will attest, over the last few years, citizen journalists and traditional reporters have used drones to document protests in Poland, Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela—on occasion disputing official storylines about the size of the demonstrations. In Turkey, police shot down a drone documenting a protest at Taksim Square last year—an event captured on video and uploaded to YouTube. (Drones can seem unsettlingly sentient, and the downing of the drone was oddly disturbing, as if police had shot a bird out of the sky.)

News organizations in Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico have used drones to cover protests, elections, and traffic jams. And in Africa, a Kenyan digital journalist launched African SkyCam last year. For now, SkyCam has a drone team at a newspaper in Nairobi, but there are plans to expand the pilot project, which is supported by the Knight Foundation, to the rest of the continent.

In Britain, the BBC started experimenting with drones in earnest last year and currently owns three models, which are used to record video—primarily for feature stories such as vivid dispatches from Brazil’s cities and rainforest in advance of the World Cup. “It enables you to get views from a unique perspective and it gets you the ability to transition between two shots; that dreamlike motion of flying off things, and over things, which previously was only available to Hollywood,” says Tom Hannen, senior innovations producer at the BBC Global Video Unit. The BBC prefers to call these devices flying cameras.

Though Hannen won’t rule out the use of drones for news stories in the future, the BBC has held back so far—in part because in the UK, where drones are legal but strictly regulated, aviation authorities require the submission of a flight plan in advance, making it impractical in most breaking news situations.

Back in the united states, it seems to be in universities that the most experimentation is underway. This spring, New York University offered a course in Flying Robotic Journalism at its Interactive Telecommunications Program, an interdisciplinary graduate project often compared to the MIT Media Lab. ITP’s production center occupies a high-ceilinged loft on Broadway, where on a recent afternoon instructor Ben Moskowitz was leading eight students in an exploration of how drones can be used for new forms of storytelling.

Moskowitz, a lean, intense 27-year-old who was wearing a gray-striped hoodie, opened a Skype link to London, and Hannen of the BBC appeared on a screen. The slow connection didn’t dampen Hannen’s enthusiasm for the subject. One video he shared with the class featured spectacular, close-up footage of the Christ statue in the hills above Rio de Janeiro that he took as part of a dazzling coverage package during World Cup soccer events. “You can almost see the chisel marks of the sculptor, and obviously you got the changing perspective of the city below and the clouds,” Hannen said, before taking questions from Moskowitz and the students.

Moskowitz started teaching a course on drones after conducting a symposium last year backed by the MacArthur Foundation. It was about civilian uses of small drones and over the course of three days it drew drone makers and experts from academia, the military, and the media as well as hundreds of others to the NYU campus. After the conference’s success, Moskowitz was asked to teach a class devoted to drone journalism. He’s particularly interested in how intended uses of technology get subverted. “The internet was designed to survive a nuclear attack so that the military decision-makers could keep talking. Then the bearded dudes, who were doing LSD at Stanford and Berkeley, got their hands on it. The counterculture proposed an alternate view of what computers could be—the personal computer.”

Though he doesn’t consider himself a journalist—his day job is working for Mozilla, the nonprofit organization that developed the Firefox browser and extols the virtue of the open Web—Moskowitz himself has become a student of technology’s power in storytelling. “It’s about finding interesting journalistic possibilities. There’s going to be a bicycle race or a rally—is there a way we can tell these stories, using this technology? If not, move on. We don’t want the technology to be the horse that pulls the cart. The tool is just another tool in the tool kit. And I think that’s the way it should be. You shouldn’t be biased for the new technology.”

In his class, students are asked to research, plan, fly, shoot, and edit a drone journalism feature, which will eventually be published on the Web. The students have access to several drones and, after the indoor-portion of the class one recent day, they headed out with Moskowitz to a neighboring park, their selected drone packed into a black case.

After some mechanical delays, the flying camera took flight. “It’s a little jumpy right now. I’m not sure why,” Moskowitz said as the white drone lifted up, whirring and whizzing like a swarm of bees. People in the park stopped to stare. Some took pictures or video with their cellphones; a few asked Moskowitz technical questions about its range and price.

Two students, Daniel Soto and Kristina Budelis, were taking turns flying the drone, keeping it nearby and less than 20 feet above ground. But when a park attendant approached the group and told them to leave, Moskowitz was unfailingly polite as he packed up the drone. Satisfied that order had been restored, the attendant left. “This is par for the course with drones. But it’s their discretion. It’s like skateboarding. If the park service says you can’t skate in the park, you can’t skate.”

That attitude might at least have bought Moskowitz some time. Though both the Nebraska and Missouri programs were shut down, so far NYU’s program hasn’t been.

Raphael Pirker is a controversial person within the drone community. His cinematic feats—circling a drone around the Statue of Liberty; diving under the arches of the Golden Gate Bridge—have earned him both admiration and the moniker “aerial anarchist.” One video of New York bridges has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube. He draws viewers because of the high quality of his videos and his willingness to take on the FAA; he draws detractors because they think he’s a show-off whose stunts bring unwanted scrutiny to household drones. In conversation, the 29-year-old Austrian appears quite comfortable in his role as agent provocateur. But recently, Pirker became more than that. He became the man who could set drone journalism on a new course.

In 2011, a marketing company approached Pirker about using his drone to record aerial footage of the University of Virginia for a promotional video. On the day of filming, several representatives of the university, including safety officers, followed Pirker around to make sure university regulations were followed. But as soon as the video was posted online, the FAA came forward to fine him $10,000.

“I decided to read up on US law, and it very quickly became apparent that there was no enforceable legislation,” says Pirker, when reached by phone in Hong Kong, where he now lives. “Because I’m the most famous pilot in this community, it seemed more like they were trying to make an example to scare people.”

If that indeed was the intention, it backfired this March, when a National Transportation Safety Board judge threw out the fine with the argument that the FAA doesn’t have the legal authority to impose or enforce its ban on small drones. The FAA immediately appealed and still has posted on its website: “There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in US airspace needs some level of FAA approval.”

Pirker says that he’s not against having any regulations. “This would be a very good chance for them to make sensible rules,” he says. If the full board affirmed the judge’s ruling, it could jeopardize the federal ban.

Brendan Schulman, Pirker’s lawyer and himself a drone hobbyist, says there are safety issues to be worked out but that the initial concerns about privacy and surveillance are overstated. “The scenarios I read about—pictures taken through windows or spying on people in their backyards—these kinds of cases are already covered,” under existing privacy laws, he says. “The offensive conduct is the taking of a picture of someone who is in a private space—not the technology. It shouldn’t matter legally, if I take a picture through a window, whether I use a broomstick or a drone.”

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Louise Roug is the global news editor at Mashable. At the Los Angeles Times, she was a finalist, along with her Baghdad colleagues, for a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the war. Follow her @louiseroug.