Drones! Learn how you too can be shut down by the federal government

Professor holds court among journalists on using drones for reporting

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The many impacts of the federal government shutdown have been well chewed over in recent weeks, but here’s one you probably didn’t think about: It could delay use of drones by news organizations to do reporting.

Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of its Drone Journalism Lab, told attendees gathered around his drone display and demo station (see video below of his 3-pound, $500 DJI Phantom quadcopter) at the Online News Association conference in Atlanta that the shutdown could be yet another obstacle along the path toward legalizing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for non-military purposes. Congress has been working to get the Federal Aviation Administration to rewrite rules allowing commercial use of drones by the fall of 2015.

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In the meantime, news organizations  have experimented with camera-equipped drone usage under hazy airspace rules. Waite himself waived around a recently-received cease and desist letter from the government related to his efforts and stood in front of a whiteboard featuring the message “Drones! Learn how you too can be shut down by the federal government.” Relations between news organizations seeking to use drones and the government have been, according to Waite, “hostile.”

Waite’s talk attracted a crowd of dozens, including a rep from another school who said students there have been making or buying drones of their own and flying them, without any official okay from the school. A digital media expert I spoke to at the event said his news organization has aligned with non-paid hobbyists a couple of times to provide aerial views at events, but has curtailed the practice for fear of legal repercussions (news organizations are welcome to use drones indoors, where the FAA doesn't have any jurisdiction).

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Waite stressed that the dangers of drone use in reporting are real, as are the legal ones, such as flying over someone’s house. Although he also says that most drone usage for reporting would involve sending such a device straight up and down, and not over people or property.

Drones, especially when packed with a camera and heavy batteries, can do serious damage to people if they and their whirring propellers crash into them. Though Waite says in the parts of Nebraska where his group has experimented, the worst likely result is damaging some Ph. D. student’s agricultural plot (not that he was dismissing this as insignificant either). For those interested in how such experiments work, Waite said at a minimum they require three people: a pilot, someone to observe the area for obstructions or dangers, and the reporter himself or herself.

While Waite has been at this business for a while, he’s still learning, and in fact said he was reading a book on the history of airspace on this way to the conference. He says the first thing you learn upon using drones for reporting is how terrible a pilot you are. The second thing is that you never have enough spare parts.

Nevertheless, Waite is pressing on. He’s documenting his efforts to get FAA permission to test drones for journalism on the GitHub open software development website.  Even if Waite gets permission, he anticipates plenty of restrictions, such as having to notify the government about exactly where a drone would fly a couple of weeks in advance – obviously negating the use of such technology for truly breaking news.

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