Photo caption

Unmanned Safety Institute faculty Anthony Galante (left) and Alex Mirot practice aerial maneuvers on a flight simulator at the USI training center in Orlando, Florida, on Friday, June 12, 2015. The simulator provides experience controlling an unmanned aircraft in various environments and scenarios.

"Drone" — one syllable, phonetically callous, imbued with stereotypes of armed payloads and spy cameras. The term is not public friendly. And yet drones, also known as unmanned aircraft (UA), are today's promising new tool for a wide range of commercial applications, especially in journalism.

That’s why I decided to head to The Unmanned Safety Institute* in Orlando, Florida, this summer to learn more about the opportunities and challenges. The institute provides advanced certification of unmanned aircraft that complies with current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.

Visual journalists routinely rely on piloted aircraft to provide readers with aerial perspectives for coverage of breaking news, environmental and conservation issues, natural disasters, among many others. However, contracting air charter services at $300 per hour that include altitude restrictions makes piloted airplanes impractical for many news operations.

Drones have the potential to free journalists from these limitations.

Four years ago, Bill Allen recognized the storytelling potential that drones can provide. Allen is an assistant professor of science and agriculture journalism with faculty appointments in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the Missouri School of Journalism. Because of his cross-disciplinary role, he sees the advantages unmanned aircraft can have for field reporting on farming, wildlife, ranching, forestry and water resources.

For the past three spring semesters, Allen has offered the class "Civilian Drone Issues, Applications and Flight" listed under Science and Agriculture Journalism. I sat in on his 2014 class and soon realized the enormous potential for visual journalism. This year, Allen and I co-taught the spring class and we have since become team advocates for drone journalism.

The main issue at the intersection between drones and journalism is the evolving landscape that is caught between dawdling government regulations by the FAA and rapid technological advancements. Another complication is that these small, lightweight aircraft present unique privacy and safety challenges for news organizations that are looking to use unmanned aircraft.

Despite the limitations, I believe drone technology is a vital tool for news organizations and journalists to employ, especially for visual journalists. The potential benefits far outweigh the diligence necessary to develop, educate and advocate their use.

The institute's safety instructor training that I received this past June was both rigorous and enlightening. After successfully completing the course work, I have identified several broad areas that require consideration before drones are practical for regular news coverage.

Dealing with the FAA

Journalists wishing to use unmanned aircraft within the United States should understand that the FAA regulates all airspace and the agency officially classifies drones as "aircraft." The FAA is in the process of constructing first-time regulations for commercial use of unmanned aircraft to be released sometime this next year. There is growing consensus in the UA industry that the FAA will require some level of advanced training for operators, including the FAA Ground School Knowledge Test, which is consistent with private pilot certification. When the FAA does issues the new regulations, news organizations will be faced with two options: Get a staff member certified with the FAA or fly illegally and risk significant penalties. So as the unregulated use of unmanned aircraft by journalists escalates, it is necessary now for educators to provide training that anticipates FAA requirements.

Define 'privacy'

Understanding privacy law is a major factor for journalists and impacts visual journalists each time they cover a story. Journalists honor a person's "reasonable expectation of privacy" by making sure that photographs are made from the public right of way or from a piloted airplane above 500 feet. Now all that is changing. Journalists flying unmanned aircraft can make photographs at altitudes lower than 500 feet and still hover over public areas. It is expected that news organizations that operate drones will face significant legal challenges for invasion of privacy in the coming years. And while there is no legal precedent yet, the journalism community should initiate the conversation now in advance of the challenges.

Safety first

Safety for individuals and property must be paramount whether operating an unmanned aircraft within the United States under FAA regulations or internationally within another nation's airspace. Many countries have limited, if any, aviation rules for UA operation. While journalists may feel restricted by the FAA, there are reasons why the United States enjoys the best aviation record among all nations. Several class session during the institute's safety training focused on the protocol of federal airways. I was never aware of things such as G Class Airspace, METARs, and CTAF frequencies before attending the Unmanned Safety Institute. Yet understanding these aviation resources will assure safe and responsible UA flights. The unthinkable will happen: It is just a matter of time before someone flies a drone in the path of an airliner's jet engine and brings it down. It is critical that we teach a safety-first culture to any journalist who plans to operate a drone.

Plan, plan and plan again before takeoff

Planning, as a formal practice, is the standard that will separate professional commercial UA operators from toy hobbyists. The steps necessary for on-site use of an unmanned aircraft include a review of area aeronautical sectional charts, obtaining weather forecasts, pre-flight site evaluations, and communication with area residents. An intended flight pattern should be pre-visualized and mapped. The institute's training also emphasizes a two-person team approach to flight operations. Every UA flight should consist of a two individuals — one is the UA operator and a second acts as a visual observer. This approach increases awareness and provides two sets of eyes fixed on the aircraft and on possible obstructions. Planning dovetails with safety first.

Teaching is crucial

Twelve universities are currently teaching courses in unmanned aircraft, although typically their courses are in engineering or aviation divisions. Only the University of Nebraska and the University of Illinois have established drone journalism curriculum. Allen's class, mentioned earlier, is the only course at the University of Missouri on unmanned aircraft. Advancements in technology now make it cost effective to build a drone journalism program here at Missouri. The Unmanned Safety Institute incorporates the use of flight simulators for student training. A simulator program includes both software and controller hardware with a number of mock drones loaded into the software. The software can be programmed to mirror real environmental conditions, terrain and risk factors. There are also a variety of online teaching tools that can serve as "e-textbooks" for a course that covers the fundamentals of safety and flight. These two teaching tools are examples of practical solutions to significantly build and improve our program at nominal cost.

All eyes are on the FAA to establish their new regulations for commercial use of unmanned aircraft. Regardless of what the FAA will or will not accomplish, RJI and the Missouri School of Journalism have the opportunity to be proactive with a drone journalism program now without waiting on the FAA. Missouri has the opportunity to embrace this new technology to benefit students and early-career professionals, and we can build an educational program that stays within the FAA's current limitations.

Safety is the cornerstone of the Unmanned Safety Institute's training. They advocate that professional unmanned aircraft operators must "exhibit a culture of constructive attitude and pattern of behavior that demonstrates a commitment to safety." By adopting this covenant through education and research, the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the Missouri School of Journalism can set the highest standard for stewardship and education of drone journalism.

*The Unmanned Safety Institute is based in Orlando, Florida, and is affiliated with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Rick Shaw completed UAS Safety Certification and UAS Instructor Certification for small unmanned aircraft from the Unmanned Safety Institute in June 2015. He co-teaches the course "Civilian Drone Issues, Applications and Flight" at the University of Missouri.

Rick Shaw  
Director of POYi


Related Stories

comments powered by Disqus
MU | Missouri School of Journalism | University of Missouri