By Harry A. Jessell TVNewsCheck
Unmanned flying units could become a great new tool for media, particularly TV stations that need to find more economical ways to cover the news throughout their sprawling markets. To insure that this nascent tool is available to them in a few years, broadcasters need to get involved in the FAA’s regulatory process and keep an eye on state legislatures; they need to learn everything they can about drones and drone regulation.
“The high-pitched whine of a small aircraft suddenly buzzed overhead, streaking in out of nowhere and skimming the wooded canopy just above them. The sound was very close, and Langdon and Sienna froze as the craft raced past.”
In this little excerpt from Dan Brown’s summer bestseller Inferno, a secret paramilitary group and what seems to be the entire local constabulary are relentlessly pursuing our heroes through all the principal tourists sites of Florence (the novel is better as travelogue than thriller). Aiding in the pursuit is the “three-foot-long, radio-controlled chopper” with video camera.
Such drones — or unmanned aircraft systems as the FAA now likes to call them — will soon be moving out of popular entertainment and into your life. The FBI acknowledged in June that it has already used drones in hostage and barricade situations. And under a congressional mandate, the FAA has begun writing rules for the widespread commercial use of drones. It must complete the job by 2015.
Commercial use covers everything from crop spraying and geological exploration to environmental research and search and rescue.
As a tool for journalists, drones hold great promise. They can do the job of manned helicopters at a lower cost, they can provide new perspectives (literally and figuratively) on breaking news and in-depth stories and they can capture images in places that were inaccessible before. Some of these drones are so small and quick as to be virtually invisible.
Right now, only hobbyists and others with a noncommercial interest in drones can fly them and they can only do so only within a range of 400 feet in unpopulated areas. Matt Waite, the journalist-turned-professor who is head of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, learned just last month that even his educational experiments in drone journalisms will require a special FAA permit, one that the lab may qualify for only because it’s part of a government institution.
The certification “process, as it stands now, is antithetical to journalism,” Waite wrote on his blog.“Permits take months. You have to apply to fly in a specific location — months in advance, mind you — and your chances of getting a permit drop if you ask for a place in restricted airspace. Don’t know if you’re in restricted airspace? Chances are, if you’re reading this in a city, you are.”
In making their case at the FAA to use drones with the least possible restrictions, the media face a long and difficult task. The proceeding sets up a classic clash of constitutional liberties — privacy vs. freedom of the press.
Civil libertarians — liberal and conservative — object to giving up still more of their privacy and they are not necessarily making distinctions between the government and the media. They will likely use all legal means — legislation, regulation and the courts — to keep drones out of their lives.
According to Waite, Texas has already outlawed drones used for “the purpose of surveillance,” which specifically exempts ranchers, oil and gas prospectors and many others, but not the media.
Whatever the eventual restrictions, at least the media won’t have to worry about bounty hunters.
The folks of Deer Trail, Colo., petitioned their town to issue hunting licenses for drones and pay a $100 bounty to any licensed hunter who shoots one down and drags in a drone carcass to prove it. That’s a good deal, given that the license would be just $25.
Deer Trail resident Phillip Steel is author of the proposed measure. “I don’t want to live in a surveillance society. I don’t feel like being in a virtual prison,” he told the Associated Press. “This is a preemptive strike.”
News of the proposed ordinance provoked the FAA to warn that drone hunting was strictly verboten. “Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane,” the agency said in a statement.
Before you write off Steel as a trigger-happy cowboy, know that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein expressed essentially the same sentiment after a hearing on domestic drone use in June. “I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone and the use of the drone, and the very few regulations that are on it today and the booming industry of commercial drones,” the California Democrat said.
Early efforts to use drones in the tabloid backwaters of journalism in other parts of the world have already run afoul of the law. In South Africa, in June, a freelancer was arrested for flying a drone near the hospital where Nelson Mandela was receiving treatment. He was later released, but the drone and his footage were confiscated.
In a similar incident earlier this month, another freelancer flew a drone — a quadrocopter — over the wedding of Tina Turner at her estate in Switzerland in hopes of getting a shot. Local police again foiled the effort, forcing the photographer to land the craft and give up the on-board camera’s memory card. (The paparazzi prevailed in the end as they usually do. A photog with a Swiss tabloid managed to get the money shot flying over in a small plane.)