Drones For Journalism: UT Invests in Cutting-Edge Technology That Still Has to Clear Some Obstacles

It's about the size of a remote-controlled model helicopter or airplane, and whirs to life after syncing up with six satellites. Faster than you'd expect, it rises straight up from the ground as a man pushes some knobs on a simple-looking controller. It goes so high its square, white frame almost disappears in the sunny sky before it returns to hover at about tree-height in Circle Park on the University of Tennessee campus. When it lands about 50 feet away, one of its propellers falls off. Mike Wiseman, the director of Operations at the Volunteer Channel and a video production specialist in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, shrugs and says it snaps back on pretty easily.

Wiseman and his colleague Nick Geidner, an assistant professor in the department, are both pretty excited about their newly-purchased, cutting-edge tool.

"We were just wanting to give the students some brand-new technology and get them hands-on experience," Wiseman explains.

So they bought a drone.

It's about 18 inches square and cost about $700, which came out of the school's regular technology budget. Once a lightweight GoPro camera (approximately $300) is attached to the bottom, the little drone becomes a next-generation journalistic tool.

"It's one of many new tools," Geidner says. "Is it going to tell the whole story? No, but it's a piece of the puzzle."

Both Wiseman and Geidner equate the drone to a video camera ("A journalist with a camera is just as likely to be picked up by police," as one with a drone, says Geidner), but they both agree that journalists should probably make a serious effort to re-brand drones as a tool for reporting, not just a tool for war.

"They can be used for good, and they can be used for bad," says Wiseman. "With the war, people there's hellfire and missiles [attached to them]."

"The word [drone] scares people," Geidner says. "There are people that'll always be suspicious of drones."

But, Geidner points outs, the challenge of getting a source to agree to allow a drone to fly over his or her property is the same as getting someone to agree to an on-camera interview. Geidner says drones could offer a way for local reporters to get fresh photographic perspectives on breaking news stories like house fires or traffic wrecks, and they could help document environmental stories that might involve changes to public or private land that reporters on the ground might not be able to visualize.

The re-branding effort could be helped as more universities and news organizations begin to use drones as a means for news gathering and prove to the public that the media can use them responsibly. Still, state legislatures have passed bills this year that might preempt the use of drones for some news stories, particularly those that might involve agricultural operations.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Missouri, and Ball State University have all recently begun leading the charge to teach college journalists how to effectively use drones in their reporting. Nebraska got its drone in 2011, and Missouri got one in 2012. The two programs flew their drones within the Federal Aviation Administration's guidelines for remote-controlled aircrafts (like those model helicopters you can fly around), which generally limit the height of the aircraft to 400 feet over unpopulated areas and not near airports, beyond the pilot's range of sight, or without manual control. The director and founder of Missouri's drone journalism program, Scott Pham, also wrote on the program's website that they went even further by not flying over private property. Despite those constraints, Pham writes that the program was able to produce valuable stories on prairie fires and fracking.

But the FAA threw a wrench into the programs' plans in August, when both Missouri and Nebraska received a letter from the agency. The letter requested both programs "cease and desist" their drone flights and informed them that since they are part of public entities (in this case public universities), they would have to get a Certificate of Authorization (COA) in order to legally fly the drones.

The process to get a COA takes about 60 days and requires a flight plan. It's the same process that entities like police forces have to go through. Matt Waite, who started Nebraska's drone program, writes on his website that applying to fly in a restricted airspace makes it more difficult to get a COA (most cities, including Knoxville, are within restricted airspace).

Pham writes on his website that he plans to apply for a COA and has "no reason to think we will be denied." However, Pham adds that "for the past several months, we were primarily concerned with the creation of news content with drone flight. Within a defined airspace, it's hard to imagine the kinds of stories we can produce."

UT's school of journalism did not receive a letter from the FAA, nor is there an entire program dedicated to the use of drones to report the news (yet). Still, Geidner says they are operating under the assumption that the FAA's "public entity" rule will apply to them as well, since UT is a public university.

That means no more outdoor flights for now.

"These were only going to be training classes in an open field," Wiseman says, and not the center of an entire program. "We were wanting to show the journalism kids how to use it."

"We'll probably see if we can take it to Thompson-Boling [Arena]," Geidner adds. "[But] we didn't have anything in our curriculum. It's no skin off our teeth."

But it's not just the FAA's "cease and desist" letter that could hinder UT's drone use. Most states have either introduced or enacted legislation limiting the use of drones. Pham has had to defend the journalistic use of drones to the Missouri state Legislature amid rumors that drones would be used to unfairly target feedlots and slaughterhouses. Just this year, nine states enacted various bills restricting drone use. The Tennessee Legislature passed SB 796, which focuses only on police use of drones, and requires warrants to use them. Nashville police acquired two drones this year, and the Shelby County Sheriff's Office requested funding for two drones, but the County Commission vote to approve the funding was delayed. Police in Knoxville and Knox County do not have drones.

Eventually, Geidner and Wiseman hope to use the drones to help tell important stories, such as the redevelopment of the Lakeshore complex, and not just for the sake of using a drone, Wiseman says.

News organizations are slowly coming on board. Two media outlets in Brazil used a drone to film a protest in Sao Paolo in June. Australia's 60 Minutes program used a drone in 2011 to fly over a Christmas Islands detention facility after being denied entry.

At UT, the new drone has also created a buzz in the journalism school, Geidner and Wiseman say.

"I get at least 40 e-mails a day," from students asking about the drone, Wiseman says.

Geidner adds that it's been "one of the main ways we can get kids psyched about journalism, especially those freshmen and sophomores," who are in the middle of the less-exciting, but necessary, fundamental reporting classes.

Geidner's pretty optimistic that the FAA will amend its rules for drone use by public universities in the near future to make it easier to teach students how to use them.

"I think there's going to be enough of a question the FAA will respond," he says. Until then, though, "We're in a holding pattern."