Over at the University of Nebraska, journalism students putting another tool in the reporter’s toolbox: drones. The Drone Journalism Lab at U. of Nebraska Lincoln has filed its first drone-assisted story, a print/video story package (you can see the video below) on the ongoing drought in Nebraska’s Platte River basin.
Collaborating with the university’s NIMBUS Lab (that’s Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems), the journalism school used an unmanned aerial system (UAS) to gather imagery from along the Platte River and surrounding farmland to supplement their report–a pretty pedestrian, uncontroversial use of the technology. But while the idea of using drones for news collection isn’t necessarily new, the Drone Journalism Lab is the first program we know of at an accredited university to aggressively pursue this kind of data collection in the name of journalism using unmanned aerial systems. It’s an idea worth exploring, but also one fraught with ethical concerns.
Not least of those will be privacy issues, and whether UAS can be used to collect imagery or other information from the airspace over private property. It’s easy to dismiss these concerns by noting that aerial drones offer no greater access to aerial imagery than news helicopters, but that’s not exactly true–unmanned systems not only lower the barrier to entry for this kind of reporting, but they are also more surreptitious and can be more invasive, as they fly lower and can maneuver very close to their subjects, and do so without the subject necessarily knowing about it (try that with a Sikorsky).
But whether privacy advocates like it or not, unmanned systems are coming to the U.S. for a variety of applications, and soon. The FAA has been directed to open the skies up to commercial UAS by 2015, and for some applications they are already cleared to fly–albeit with certain restrictions. Drones are going to play a role in journalism going forward, so it’s probably a good thing that someone is exploring the potential benefits as well as what limitations might be necessary.