MU journalist explores using drones for reporting

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A University of Missouri journalist is studying the use of unmanned drones more commonly seen in military applications as a potential tool for gathering news.

The Columbia Missourian  reports that KBIA-FM news producer Scott Pham has received a $25,000 school grant to work with counterparts in the MU College of Engineering to develop flying robots for journalism use.

Pham said the drones can take aerial photographs and record video from difficult-to-reach news scenes. He came up with the idea while reporting in southeast Missouri on the breached Birds Point Levee in October 2011.

“The reporting was difficult to do because you had to do it from the ground up, and it was so low,” he said. “We would have benefited so much more from getting a bird’s-eye view.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska are also studying the possible use of drones by journalists. The Lincoln school has received a $50,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to establish a Drone Journalism Lab.

The Missouri grant money will go toward drone construction, equipment purchases and teaching expenses. Pham said he hopes the first stories will be published by the end of the spring semester.

“Not knowing exactly what you’re going to do is challenging,” Pham said. “A good drone requires a quick reaction. They can’t do that when there are wires sticking out everywhere. After we test them, we will build the drones with help from the engineering department.”

Matthew Dickinson, the project’s technical adviser, said the drones will be built using materials from existing components.

“When you build a house, you don’t chop the tree down to build the walls,” said Dickinson, an MU information technology specialist. “You go out and buy wood. We are using different materials that already exist, such as different kinds of plastic and computer chips, to build the drones.”

U.S. government use of military drones has escalated rapidly under President Barack Obama’s administration while also being used for covert CIA operations. The small planes can transmit live video and fire missiles, and are operated by remote control thousands of miles away at military installations such as Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster.

The Federal Aviation Administration is developing regulations for commercial use of drones, with specific rules expected by 2015. A graduate journalism class assisting the project will also study the ethics of drone use to report news.

“There are a lot of civilian uses that can be good things,” Dickinson said. “If someone wants an aerial shot, they can use a drone instead of paying thousands of dollars for a helicopter shot.”

Pham said journalism drones could be particularly valuable in documenting rural, agricultural and environmental projects, such as droughts or flooding.

“This could be a really promising innovation when it comes to reporting,” he said. “It could change the way we do it. We want journalists to do stories that put drones up in the air.”