- - Wednesday, May 1, 2013



The Boston Police Department wants to deploy drones during next year’s running of the city’s marathon to have “eyes in the sky.” But what about journalists using drones?

I will admit I am skeptical about reporters using a drone — technically known as an unmanned aerial vehicle.

But journalists have started to study the use of drones, particularly for coverage in isolated places such as the coastline after an event such as Hurricane Sandy, when roads and other means of access are blocked. Moreover, drones, which are far less expensive than helicopters, can get close to the scene of the action.

The journalistic drones wouldn’t be the destructive devices the military launches. Instead, the aerial devices need only be of slightly higher quality than what anyone can buy for $300 at Toys R Us.

The interest in these devices comes partly as a result of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which calls for the integration of drones into the National Airspace System by 2015 for businesses, individuals and government entities such as police departments. Right now, drones cannot be used for commercial purposes, but the FAA estimates 30,000 drones will by flying by 2020.

Several universities, which are not-for-profit institutions, have journalism programs with drones. The University of Nebraska has created the Drone Journalism Lab. (See dronejournalismlab.org.) The University of Missouri has a collaboration among the School of Journalism, the Division of Information Technology and public radio station KBIA-FM. (See missouridronejournalism.com.)

Dan Pacheco runs the drone program at Syracuse University, where he holds the Newhouse School’s Horvitz Chair in Journalism Innovation. Mr. Pacheco and I worked together on a technology project to deliver news content a few years ago, so I know he’s a serious tech head and not missing a few wing nuts.

“Half of the people are fascinated and half are freaked out,” he told me.

Privacy is the main concern for many people, because a drone can easily capture people engaging in acts they might not want their neighbors to see. For example, hunters in South Carolina actually shot down a drone in February when an animal-activist group launched it to document the shooting of pigeons.

So far, Mr. Pacheco has not allowed his students to capture people on video or fly the drones too close to buildings. He said he would not employ a drone to cover an event like the Boston Marathon bombing.

“I personally wouldn’t fly one in this case out of fear of adding to people’s psychological trauma,” he said. “They may think it’s another weapon of terror.”

His team uses a Parrot AR.Drone, which anyone can buy. It can be equipped with a small video camera and controlled with a computer. The only significant restrictions are that the drone cannot fly above 400 feet and video footage cannot be used for business purposes.

Mr. Pacheco said he plans to upgrade to an ArduCopter Hexa B drone, which runs about $500 and allows a high-definition camera to soar in the skies. Even more important, the drone can be programmed to fly a specific path programmed by a computer, which means the aerial device has greater range and can maneuver much like a homing pigeon.

Mr. Pacheco said he sees a use for drones when covering stories such as fires and storm damage, but he acknowledged the concern that exists about how paparazzi and others might deploy the devices. He said he thinks the journalism community needs to acknowledge the technology will be widely available and adopt ethical standards about its use. “If journalists don’t get ahead of this, the paparazzi will take over,” he said.

Mr. Pacheco is right. But I still cringe at the combination of drones and paparazzi creating some serious havoc.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected]

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