Drones Offer Journalists a Wider View


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The best way to film the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, the Philippines, said Lewis Whyld, a British photographer, was from the air.

But Mr. Whyld did not want to beg for a ride on a military helicopter, taking the space of much-needed aid. So he launched a drone into the skies above the city. In addition to shots that showed the scale of the damage, broadcast by CNN recently, his drone discovered two bodies that were later recovered by the authorities, he said in an interview.

“The newspaper was for still images,” said Mr. Whyld, who builds his own drones, “but the Internet is for this.”

Mr. Whyld, and CNN, are not alone in exploring the potential of drones. The Associated Press and News Corporation have used them to show the scale of large disasters. News Corporation has also used them to shoot sports in Australia. Sophisticated nature documentaries use them to get intimate shots of wildlife. Paparazzi use them to chase celebrities in Europe, and reports suggest they have been used to pursue celebrities in the United States, too.

Drones, or “unmanned aerial systems,” as many of their handlers prefer to call them, are meant to fly automatically, without skilled pilots. They were largely developed for, and remain associated with, the military. But they are increasingly being used for civilian purposes, including journalism.

The machines have proved most valuable in providing film footage or photography of things that are difficult to reach, like wildlife or geographic formations. In the future, however, their capabilities may be expanded to include sensors that can help with environmental coverage, for instance, by providing readings on air quality.

“What drones give you is anywhere, anytime access to the sky,” said Chris Anderson, a former editor of Wired magazine who runs a drone company. “That perspective is something a journalist just wouldn’t have unless he waited for officials, or hired a plane.”

Early this fall the BBC launched an 18-inch, six-rotored unstaffed machine into the sky to report on a high-speed train being planned to travel from London to Manchester. The train is controversial because it would cut through and, some argue, despoil some of the most pristine rural land in England.

“The idea was we needed to get above to give our viewers the full scope of the problem,” said Tom Hannen, who operates the program.

Mr. Whyld is exploring long-range drones, which can fly 10 or 20 miles from their handler, and looking into new sensors like heat-seeking cameras.

“I’m also thinking about detection devices for chemical weapons, so you could fly into Syria,” he said. “You can do journalism that wasn’t previously possible.”

Regulations, however, have taken a different flight path. In Britain, extensive testing and several thousand dollars are required for permission to fly, Mr. Whyld said. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration allows only drone manufacturers and public entities like law enforcement agencies to test the aircraft. The agency will begin wider testing, which should lead to rules for other purposes, such as journalism.

Journalism programs, including those at the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska, and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, have started drone journalism courses. Columbia does not teach hands-on skills, but students at Missouri have used drones over the Missouri River for a report about hydraulic fracturing and over the prairie for a story about controlled burns. But in August, the F.A.A. ordered journalism schools to stop flights unless they obtained permission from the agency.

Many drone enthusiasts remain optimistic that restrictions will be loosened because the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires that the F.A.A. safely integrate unstaffed aerial vehicles into United States airspace by 2015. (The agency recently released a map that indicated that journalism could be among interesting potential uses for drones.) “It is definitely in the early days,” said Fergus Pitt, with the Tow Center, “but there is so much potential when the regulations come off.”

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