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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Journalism Professor Says FAA Drone Rules Hurt Reporting

The Senate Commerce Committee will hear testimony on the commercial use of drones today.

One topic of discussion will be how the FAA should regulate such use to protect privacy. But some small-scale drone users say they’re already facing crippling obstacles.

Matt Waite heads the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism program. He speaks with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about using drones for reporting. FAA restrictions required him to stop in July 2013.


  • Matt Waite,  professor of practice at the University of Nebraska’s college of journalism and mass communications.




While we're talking surveillance, today the Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on the commercial use of drones, as in the much publicized drones that Amazon would like to use to deliver packages. But the online retailer is not the only entity in the U.S. itching to use unmanned aviation systems, as they're called. Some journalists would like to use them, too, but aren't currently allowed to because of restrictions from the FAA.

Matt Waite heads the University of Nebraska's Drone Journalism Lab. He's with us from station NET in Lincoln. Matt, welcome.

MATT WAITE: Thank you.

HOBSON: Well first of all, tell us what drone journalism is.

WAITE: Well, it's not that terribly different from journalism from a manned aircraft. It's using these small devices, and we're talking about, you know, five, six pounds at the largest, really, to get up in the air and get a perspective on a news event. You can think of floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, anything with a large spatial extent, it would be useful to get up in the air even just a few hundred feet to get an idea of just how big the problem is.

And they're starting to see them being used around the world at large protests in Thailand, at the super-typhoon, even in sporting events in Australia. So there are a lot of places where it could be used, and it's the small form factor and the low cost that make them attractive.

HOBSON: But the FAA essentially grounded your drone journalism program.

WAITE: Indeed they did. Here in the U.S., it's not simple as to say that drones are banned in the U.S., but the FAA has taken a position that they have the authority to regulate any aircraft and that any commercial or - any use that isn't just somebody doing it for a hobby or isn't a government or research-based use is not allowed.

And they will send you a letter, and they will tell you that you could be fined, or you could even be criminally prosecuted if you continue to operate. Now we were operating under modeler rules, the kind of hobbyist rules, because we thought that we didn't have a commercial interest in what we were doing, and we weren't doing research into the actual drone itself.

So we were out in unrestricted airspace, we were far away from people. We were being very, very safe. But because I'm an employee of a public institution, I have to get the same permits that other public institutions have. And so we're working on that now.

HOBSON: Well, and some may not think that's so unreasonable, that you have to follow the rules that the FAA wants to set out and that there are safety issues. But, you know, there are also the issues, I'm sure some people listening to this are saying why do I want some news organization sending a drone up to get these images. It could end up being - taking pictures over my backyard if there's some news event that's nearby.

WAITE: Right, there are a number of questions, and that's why we started the lab was to look into all of these issues, be they legal, be they ethical, be they safety. There are a large number of unanswered questions that need to be answered before you will see this being done in a widespread fashion.

Honestly, that issue of flying over somebody's backyard, it's actually not legally clear even now, you know, hundreds of years after hot air balloons started flying around, and people were taking pictures from those, whether or not you are actually committing trespass flying over somebody's backyard, say 300 feet in the air.

For it to be trespass, you have to deprive somebody of their property. There has to be some actual harm. Well, are you actually doing anyone actual harm being up 300 feet in the air where they can't possibly use their property? And the answer is, well, it's not terribly clear.

A lot of private property activists will say absolutely it's completely trespassing, you absolutely cannot do that. But the law isn't so straight on that just yet. So that's one major unanswered question.

HOBSON: Well, and you also have to wonder about the issue of the definition of journalist, whether somebody who calls themselves let's say a blogger, or they just are a journalist on Twitter, they decide to get a drone and send it up to get what they're looking for.

WAITE: Honestly, the price of these things has come down so much that, you know, it doesn't even take that. It could just be a local gadfly, a busybody could just grab one off the Internet and...

HOBSON: What do they cost?

WAITE: Anywhere from - a decent one that will get you in the air and be relatively stable in a breeze, eh, $500. You can get them cheaper than that, but, you know, you get what you pay for.

HOBSON: Well, we're talking about this as if it's something far off into the future. Of course this could be much sooner. This could be the way of journalism in the near future. Matt Waite, professor at the University of Nebraska's Drone Journalism Lab, thanks so much for joining us.

WAITE: Thank you for having me.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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