Green drones?

Unmanned aerial vehicles poised to enhance environmental coverage

As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prepares to allow the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for a wide array of commercial pursuits in the US, from law enforcement to filmmaking, two universities are experimenting with using drones for journalism.

In late February, Fast Company profiled the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab, launched in 2011, and the University of Missouri’s Drone Journalism Program, launched last month, calling them “the first two programs of their type in the nation.” The Chicago Reader then followed up with a profile of its own, and what comes out of both pieces, which describe some of the experimentation so far, as well as other coverage of the two programs, is that drone technologies hold particular promise for the environment beat.

In October, Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab (part the university’s college of Journalism and Mass Communications) published its first stories based on drone reporting, using a small, $25,000 aircraft with eight rotors and a gimbal-mounted camera on the front to help cover a record-breaking drought in the state.

The FAA still prohibits the use of drones for commercial purposes, but a law passed in February 2012 directed the administration to safely integrate such pursuits into American airspace by September 30, 2015. Regardless, the Drone Journalism Lab isn’t a commercial enterprise, and its reporting team was able to satisfy current FAA restrictions by staying away from people and houses, flying under 400 feet, and keeping the drone in sight at all times.

In a post describing the project, professor Matthew Waite, who founded the lab, wrote:

Our first idea was to fly near the city of Lincoln’s water wells, which are next to the Platte [River] in Ashland, Neb. Problem? They’re also next to a Nebraska Army National Guard base. While it doesn’t present any airspace issues, we decided it was better to leave well enough alone and move up river. There, we found Two Rivers State Recreation Area near Yutan, Neb. Publicly accessible, fairly rural and upriver from the wells—perfect.

The effort paid off, capturing aerial video of the nearly bone-dry Platte, as well as the parched fields on either side, which the lab’s reporters stitched into a terrific package that included interviews with local scientists and environmental officials. The team also employed a different drone, “using an improvised rig of dowels, electrical tape and a glass ampule,” to collect a water sample from the river.

“We didn’t do anything with it,” Waite wrote in his explanatory post, “other than prove we could do it if we tried.”

The proof of concept for environmental reporting is clearly there. Missouri’s Drone Journalism Program (which partners with the university’s Information Technology Program and KBIA, the local NPR affiliate) plans to use drones to cover the controlled fires that state officials use to preserve and maintain prairie lands.

In 2011, The Daily, News Corp.’s now defunct tablet magazine, used The Daily Drone (an R&D project that was part of its strategy from the outset) to survey “the flattened landscape” in Tuscaloosa, AL, following a string of tornadoes, and to record damaging flood waters in Natchez, MS, and Minot, ND. However, the reporting prompted the FAA to investigate whether The Daily had violated its regulations.

Asked on Wednesday what came became of the investigation, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown wrote in an email, “We’re closed today because of the weather, so it would be hard to confirm this, but I believe we told them they were not operating legally, asked them to stop, and they did.”

The use of drones is controversial in general, and no less so for journalism, raising questions about safety and privacy. In his article for the Chicago Reader about the two university labs, Michael Miner wrote:

Fear of drones in the hands of Big Brother is rampant in the US. Bill Allen, a professor of science journalism who runs the Missouri program, tells me 14 state legislatures and both houses of Congress have introduced bills to suppress the technology.

Nebraska and Missouri are two of those states. Neither of the bills mention journalism specifically, but Missouri’s is “more sweeping,” according to Miner. Its author, Republican representative Casey Guernsey, didn’t know about the state university’s drone journalism program when he wrote the bill. When a reporter from a Kansas City TV station asked Guernsey about the program in early February, he reacted with surprise, saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s enormously disturbing to hear about.”

Following the revelation, Guernsey amended his bill to allow the use of drones by a “Missouri-based higher education institution conducting educational, research, or training programs within the scope of its mission,” according to Miner, but Guernsey still doesn’t care “if his bill puts the kibosh on the use of drones by journalists.”

Highlighting the centrality of environmental reporting in the debate about drones, the lawmaker told Miner that a lot of outlets “take investigative journalism to new levels, especially when it comes to agriculture.” And, “by levels, he meant depths,” Miner explained:

Guernsey represents a section of western Missouri rich in CAFOs—that is, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. These are the huge operations damned by documentarians for confining massive numbers of animals in small spaces to eat, get fat, and get slaughtered. Guernsey calls these muckrakers activists posing as investigative journalists and he says, “Considering the lengths they go to to get some of their information, I don’t think we can be any too cautious in regulating what they may or may not be able to do with drones.”

The agricultural industry has pushed so-called “ag-gag” laws in states nationwide to prevent the animal-rights activists Guernsey was referring to from using undercover photography to expose animal cruelty. But the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press thinks that such legislation could impede newsgathering, by threatening journalists’ reliance on whistleblowers. Drone laws could have a similarly stultifying effect.

Guernsey told Miner that when it comes to private farms and ranches, “It’s not for public consumption what’s going on.” Miner pushed back, pointing out that their products are quite literally for public consumption, but Guernsey countered with the standard GOP line about industry having a greater interest in food safety than consumers.

The effectiveness of self-regulation—which is what Guernsey’s argument implies—is highly suspect, of course, and it seems clear that if the FAA can develop sound guidelines for the commercial use of drones, they could be a very important tool for improving the coverage of agriculture and many other environmental stories.

Waite, who started Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab, recently told Moran Barkai that his experience covering natural disasters inspired the idea. “As a reporter, I covered five hurricanes, a bunch of tornadoes in the American south, wildfires, and all manner of biblical disasters,” he said. “One thing I was always frustrated by was the lack of perspective that you have on the ground—you can’t see how far the destruction goes and how different areas are affected.”

The possibilities extend well beyond disasters, however. Articles in The Washington Post and Scientific American have suggested that drones could be used to report on radiation levels following accidents at nuclear power plants, for instance. Regulators will have to ensure that journalists are using the aircraft safely and respecting privacy law, of course, but with so much to offer, it’s hard not look forward to their wider use on the environment beat.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,