Three and a half years ago, journalist-turned educator Matt Waite won a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to kickstart a fledgling drone program at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dubbed the "Drone Journalism Lab" by Waite (a sometimes Poynter contributor), the program sought to establish an early foothold among the small but growing cohort of journalists using unmanned aircraft for reporting.
Within months, Waite and his students did just that. They built and flew drones to survey the surrounding landscape from up above. One project offered a birds-eye view of a drought-stricken Nebraska landscape enduring one of its worst dry spells since the Dust Bowl.
Then he got the letter.
In the summer of 2013, Waite opened a cease-and-desist notice from the Federal Aviation Administration, which had taken notice of his activities and demanded the drones be grounded. Nebraska's lab and a similar effort at The University of Missouri had unknowingly run afoul of the agency's guidelines, which prohibit use of drones for commercial purposes without special permission. Despite urging from associates who suggested bending the rules a little, Waite and his students followed the FAA's directions.
"When you're a state university, you can't exactly thumb your nose at other agents of the government and say, 'Nah, we're going to do what we want,'" Waite said.
Since then, the University of Nebraska's lab has stopped sending drones skyward in the United States. But that could change for Waite and his fellow drone journalists this year, when the FAA is slated to release new rules that will legalize commercial use of drones. If the FAA hits its spring 2016 deadline to issue guidelines, it will be a big step toward the end of a years-long regulatory process Waite says has been unnecessarily fraught with complications.
And it will be a watershed development for American photojournalism writ large, one that will put relatively inexpensive aerial photography, videography and airborne sensors in play for journalists across the United States.
"Agriculture, media, public infrastructure, examining bridges — there's so much that drones can do," said Ben Kreimer, who experiments with drones in his fellowship with BuzzFeed’s Open Lab for Journalism, Technology, and the Arts. "Which is why, when it comes to journalism, my focus is on exploring the possibilities."
The potential applications for journalism are varied. Since arriving at BuzzFeed in June, Kreimer has tinkered with putting sensors that monitor environmental conditions onto drones. This is inspired in part by an earlier project in Nairobi, where Kreimer made a browser-based 3D reconstruction of a landfill with footage from a drone. That experience prompted him to look into using sensor-equipped drones that could monitor pollutants similar to the kind that emanate from the dump.
But the most common use for drones among journalists will likely be taking photos and videos of vast swaths of land from on high, Waite said. Drones are most useful for covering stories with large spatial applications, particularly natural or man-made disasters. It's difficult to convey the scope of damage wrought by a tornado or hurricane with street-level photography, but the loss becomes clear from 50 or 100 feet in the air. These visuals can be used to create maps of disaster areas and combined with data to explain how different sections of a community fared after a storm hit.
Waite and Kreimer hope the regulations will be finalized in 2016, but both noted that the FAA is already behind its original schedule. The agency missed an earlier deadline in October, citing safety concerns and a backlog of 4,600 comments to review before issuing finalized guidelines.
In an email to Poynter, FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette said the agency is still on track to release finalized guidelines by this spring.
Despite the current lack of regulation, drones have slowly found their way onto the American journalism scene. The FAA says it has granted more than 3,000 exemptions that allow commercial users to fly drones so long as their operators have a pilot's license. Some of these exemptions have gone to news organizations like CNN, which the FAA cleared to fly drones in December. Television stations in Cox Media Group, including Atlanta's WSB, Boston's WFXT and Orlando's WFTV have also incorporated drones into their coverage, using them to report on news, weather conditions and feature stories.
The one catch: Under the current rules, journalists seeking an exemption from the FAA must have a pilot's license before the FAA will grant their request — a condition Waite says is an expensive and time-consuming burden that has little bearing on whether the journalist can fly a drone safely. He complied with the request, but he says the cockpit training didn't make him a better drone pilot. As a result of the pilot's license requirement, many of the media exemptions have gone to large market TV stations that can afford to have a helicopter pilot on the payroll, Waite said.
"I can't say that I learned a lot in the seat of the aircraft that has to do with flying drones," Waite said. "I learned a ton on the ground. I won't say it was all useless. But actually getting into the airplane and learning to fly the airplane didn't do a lot for helping me learn how to fly a drone on the ground."
The FAA says it's important for drone operators to have a basic knowledge of the U.S. aviation system and how it operates in part because of the potential danger to pilots and passengers of manned aircraft. A spokesperson cited "hundreds" of cases over the last year when drones flew uncomfortably close to manned aircraft at altitudes that violate law. The proposed rules would offer journalists a lower-cost alternative to getting a pilot's license.
"Because so many new UAS users have little or no experience with the US aviation system, education is a vital component of our safety efforts," Duquette said. "We focus on education first, but we can also take enforcement action."
For the record, there has been some dispute among drone users and pilots as to how many times drones have really come close to colliding with manned aircraft. A recent study by the Academy of Model Aeronautics that parsed FAA records "found that of the 764 close-call incidents between drones and other aircraft, only 27 were actually described by pilots as a 'near miss.'"
There are possible downsides to the coming boom in drone journalism. Among them: It may usher in an era of gratuitous coverage that Waite is calling "the year of the overdrone." He fears that the new regulations will be greeted by overzealous news directors who will attempt to inject footage captured by drones at every turn. By way of example, Waite pointed to reality television shows whose producers have managed to obtain exemptions from the FAA. For many of these shows, camera shots from drones have already supplanted crane and helicopter shots as the default transition footage. A similar push in the news industry might see drones trotted out to spice up coverage of fender benders, house fires and other routine events for the sake of novelty.
Observers have also warned of the possibility that journalists will use drones for overly invasive purposes. A June 2013 report from the Reuters Institute of Journalism noted that paparazzi were unlikely to be deterred by fines stemming from using drones to capture valuable images of celebrities in compromising situations. The availability of drones will inevitably require news organizations to consider whether it's ethical to use drones to record newsworthy events on private property where journalists aren't welcome.
The state of California has already passed a law aimed at curbing the use of drones by paparazzi. Waite says drone journalism has long been dogged by questions about privacy and suggested those considerations have more to do with the morals of the individual journalist than the technology he or she is using.
"If you wouldn't do it on the ground, what about a drone makes you think it's OK?" Waite said. "And is it the manner in which we violate people's privacy important, or the fact that it's being done the important part?"
Now that he's got his pilot's license, Waite says all the hurdles standing between his students and an FAA exemption under the current rules are out of the way. But many other journalists are still stuck in limbo, hoping the FAA will meet its spring deadline. Or, failing that, a deadline before the end of the Obama administration.
"Hope is all we've got anymore," Waite said with a laugh. "Hope is all we've got."
Correction: A previous version of this story said Kreimer flew a sensor-equipped drone over a landfill in Nairobi. Although he did fly a drone over Nairobi, it was not equipped with sensors.