Why a drone journalism educator is getting his pilot’s license

Photo: AP

Matt Waite has already enjoyed a varied career as an investigative journalist and author, as the principal developer behind PolitiFact, and, most recently, as an educator. He’ll soon add one more title to his CV: pilot.

Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been working toward his light-aircraft pilot’s license all summer—not because of any particular ambition for flying, but because it’s the only way he can revive UNL’s Drone Journalism Lab, which he founded in 2011, only to see it grounded two years later by the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Students at the lab, one of the first programs of its kind in the US, used an unmanned aerial vehicle to get a bird’s-eye view of drought conditions along the Platte River in Nebraska in 2012, demonstrating the potential value of drones for journalists. But the following year, Waite received a cease-and-desist order from the FAA, stating that the school was not authorized to fly drones for any purpose while the agency’s rule-making for drone use was pending.

Those rules still may be at least a year away. In the meantime, Waite is just weeks away from completing his pilot’s license, which will allow him to resume his work with the now-dormant Drone Journalism Lab in the spring. Still, as concerns mount about potential dangers from the proliferation of drones, and legislators seek to limit their reach, he has no illusions about the challenges ahead for himself, his students, and professional journalists hoping to use this developing technology.

Waite spoke to CJR this week about what he has learned in his dozens of flight hours this summer; the legislative hurdles faced by journalists and others hoping to work with drones; and how journalists can operate drones safely, even to cover dangerous events like the California wildfires.

Had you ever envisioned becoming a pilot?

I was interested in aviation; I had a love of airplanes growing up as a kid. But I can honestly say that it never really crossed my mind that I would become a pilot.

So from the point when your program was shut down by the FAA, how did that lead to you deciding to get a pilot’s license?

I can tell you from experience—it’s an exhilarating experience getting a cease-and-desist order from a federal regulatory agency. 

But we called them up and we said, ‘OK, what do we do?’ And they said, ‘Actually, it’s not that hard; you just have to fill out some paperwork and you’ll have to go through layers of bureaucracy, but you’ll eventually get it.’

So we started working on this paperwork… and while we were working on that, the FAA actually changed the rules with regard to certificates of authorization for government users. They said specifically that education was not a core government function. It meant that we could no longer get a permit for government users. So at the end of last year, beginning of this year, we had to shift gears and start looking at a commercial permit.

The big hurdle is, the person in control of the drone, the pilot in command, must be a licensed pilot. There is no drone license that you can get. You can’t go to the FAA and say, ‘Please give me the drone test’ and they will say, ‘Coming right up.’

The only pilot’s licenses that exist are manned aircraft licenses, so to fly a drone commercially in the U.S., the pilot in command must be a licensed pilot. So if the Drone Journalism Lab is actually going to be able to go outside, use drones to do journalism, somebody here has got to be a licensed pilot.

So at the end of May, I started getting what’s called a sport-light license. A sport-light license is the lowest level of pilot license you can get. You can only fly really small planes, only two-seaters, and they have to be a maximum takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds—which means, basically, I hope the two people you have on that plane are fairly skinny by American standards.

Do you think having gone through this process will make you a better drone operator, or is it not really applicable?

The answer is: No, but yes. I can tell you that in terms of learning about flying a drone, I’ve learned almost nothing in the aircraft that’s going to help me. Everything I needed to know about being a drone pilot I could have learned from the ground.

The only thing that I really learned in the air that will help me is that I now understand why pilots are really nervous about lots of drones, particularly near airports, and that’s because they’re really hard to see.

It’s really hard to see other airplanes when you’re flying, so a drone, honestly, is going to be really, really hard to see. That’s the only real lesson that I learned in the airplane that is meaningful. And frankly, it sort of surprised me. Before I got into the airplane, before I started this, I was really dismissive of this idea of midair collisions of planes and drones, and all of that.

I still don’t think it’s as big of a deal as a lot of people are making it out to be. Birds outnumber drones by tens of millions, and birds strike airplanes all the time—much, much bigger birds than many of these drones.

But I understand why it makes people nervous. I don’t want to find out the hard way that my Cessna 162 Skycatcher can’t absorb a drone strike. I’d rather somebody do the research on the ground, without somebody’s life at stake. But I also have pretty high confidence that it’s extremely unlikely, and it’s likely that the drone will shatter on impact and the plane will keep flying just fine.

We’re hearing concerns about drones potentially impeding not only commercial flights but even firefighters as they’re trying to deal with the wildfires in the West.

There are legitimate ways that trained people could fly drones in a wildfire area, but those means have not been created yet. I can give you a First Amendment purpose for a news organization being able to fly small drones in wildfire areas, but it has to be done safely, it has to be done with some forethought, and it has to be done in such a way that people on the ground are in touch with air traffic control and they’re able to communicate with the pilots.… And it might even require transponders on the drones to let air traffic control know where they are and what altitude they’re at.

That’s going to be a significant issue, but it’s a solvable one. News helicopters have flown in wildfire areas before. They do so with authorization from air traffic control and from the fire incident commander, and those pilots are in touch with the other pilots in the air—they know where they’re going and they know how to stay away—and it’s all done with a lot of coordination and a lot of forethought.

There’s no reason that it can’t happen with a drone from the ground.

We’ve seen legislative efforts against drone use in statehouses across the country, including California’s recent effort to restrict drone use by paparazzi, and even nationally with Senator Chuck Schumer seeking to mandate the installation of geo-fencing technology to restrict where drones can go. Do you view such legislative efforts as welcome, or too intrusive, or simply unnecessary?

I think that there are legitimate concerns, and a lot of times when there are legitimate concerns, those get turned into bad policy in a lot of places. 

There is a part of me that is very worried about what is going on in state legislatures. There are a lot of bad bills out there that would really hurt the potential uses for drones as a technology, not just for journalism but much more broadly. Some of these laws that are being passed would take them out of the hands of farmers to use them for precision agriculture or Amazon to deliver packages or things like that; it’s not just journalism that’s under pressure here.

There is another part of me that has read fairly extensively about the history of aviation law in the United States and how the rules we’ve got now came about, and the summary of it is: This has all happened before and this will all happen again. At the beginning of aviation, states began passing their own rules when it came to manned aircraft. So if you crossed a state border you had a separate set of rules you had to follow… It was just this patchwork nightmare that made the dawn of aviation in the United States very difficult.

There were lawsuits, and there were bad laws, and there were laws that were overturned, and there were states that repealed laws, and eventually we ended up with airspace being a federal issue, and that’s going to happen again. But between now and then, you’re going to see some rather interesting things happen, some creative lawmaking and some really poor lawmaking too.

But that’s life in a representative democracy.

So you’re on the verge of getting your pilot’s license, but the fall semester has already started. I take it you won’t be able to offer a drone-journalism class right away.

Up until now I have maintained that I will not offer a class in this because of the FAA, and because students wouldn’t be able to get very much out of it. The only thing we’d be able to do is go into an indoor football practice facility and fly it around in there. And I promise you that gets boring the second time you do it.

The students that I’ve worked with have all been outside of class; they’ve been funded by grants, they’ve been volunteers, they’ve been assigned to projects. 

In the spring we will offer our first class … that would use mobile devices to produce a story. And we are kind of working on what that story is going to be as of right now.

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.