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By Nadin Abbott

Photos by Tom Abbott

March 26, 2013 (San Diego) A talk held yesterday at San Diego State, hosted by SDSU’s Center for Science and Media (a collaboration of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts and the College of Sciences) raised important questions on how to use drones in media gathering--also demonstrating how effective drone coverage could be, as a drone whirred overhead transmitting images.

Professor Matt Waite from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab, brought a small drone to show it to the public. (For the record, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has shut his Lab down for the moment, as well as drone usage by the Washington Nationals and a beer company in Minnesota. The proposed use of Drones by Amazon.com to deliver goods is also not permitted under present rules.)

When the word drone is spoken, people do not realize that the word encompasses anything from a $30 toy to the Global Hawk used by the U.S. military. Professor Waite made the point that the word itself is pretty meaningless because of this, but at this point it is with us to stay.

There are some obvious positive potential uses for drones. They range from coverage ot wildfires to drought, tornado damage, floods and crop damage. Being able to see from up high (maximum of 400 feet per Federal Aviation Administration current rules), will allow readers to see the story in a broad context.

It will also allow stories with critical information to come out faster. Right now that information is often coming long after it’s needed most, such as during disasters.

There are other uses that could be beneficial to the public. They range from coverage of pollution, to erosion, land development, environmental degradation and even events such as the County Fair. All these could be covered aerially without the investment in a helicopter.

That said, there are problems in actually deploying drones for journalism. As of right now, the Federal Aviation Administration is dragging its feet in getting rules out to allow news organizations and freelance reporters to use drones in information gathering.

For instance we could use them to get a better air view of a fast moving wild fire. But since right now no form of profit is allowed, and the rules are so murky that even a grade for a college project is seen as payment, drones for reporting news are not in use. But all this is finally in flux due to this:

Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled on Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration could not ban commercial, low-flying drones based on a policy statement adopted outside the formal rule-making process, Reuters and Politico report. Geraghty is an administrative judge with the National Transportation Safety Board.


CNN even noted that the restrictions regarding drones are similar to those applied to commercial piloted aircraft. Some analysts even joked that the rules the FAA wants to use to the use of drones could apply to bullets.

According to Waite, regulations are expected to finally be released later this year. He also said that while the conservative estimate is that drones will be used within 10 years, in his opinion most of these rules will shake out in two years. He also presented the concept that much cheaper units that can be deployed in problem spots easily might replace the traffic helicopter.

He also flew a small $600 drone unit, which had a light video camera in it. He flew this indoors and the video was quite good. This demonstration does indicate how far this new technology could go.