As Drone Journalism Takes Off, UT-Arlington Researchers Offer a Glimpse of the Future

Two years ago, after their cameras were denied entry to a secretive government immigration camps on Christmas Island, the Australian version of 60 Minutes piloted a small, unmanned aircraft above the island detention center. A few months later, activists in Poland dispatched a drone to document the abuses of riot police. In Dallas last year, there was the local drone hobbyist who shot video of of pig's blood pluming in the Trinity River, sparking a media firestorm and, ultimately, the indictment of Columbia Packing Company and its owners.

And so begins the inevitable rise of drone journalism.

In a paper published last week -- the first scholarly article to address the use of unmanned vehicles in newsgathering -- UT-Arlington communications researchers Andrew Clark and Mark Tremayne document eight such cases around the world and wonder what the future could hold.

"There's nothing sort of scholarly written about this stuff," Clark said. "We're just starting to explore some potential issues that arise or that could arise....We really see this as kind of beginning a conversation about this area and, hopefully, getting people to think about it."

People are already thinking about drones, of course. They're already at the center of a national debate on privacy, as evidenced recently by Texas' recent law severely curtailing drone use, both by law enforcement and private citizens.

Clark called such measures a "knee-jerk reaction," lawmakers' way of saying "Let's nip this in the bud before it even becomes an issue." But it will become an issue, regardless of what legislators hope. So far, FAA rules banning the commercial use of such vehicles have limited their widespread use in the United States, but the agency will likely loosen those rules, opening the door for news organizations and citizen journalists to push the boundaries of privacy.

Consider the rather innocuous example of a TV station's coverage of a tornado. Sending out a helicopter is too dangerous, not to mention expensive, but they can easily attach an HD camera to a $500 drone and capture footage of the storm and its aftermath without risking much.

The same factors -- cost and access -- will drive the use of unmanned vehicles in other scenarios. Some of them will be admirable journalistic enterprises. Others, like the time paparazzi deployed one to snap photos of Paris Hilton on the Riviera, will not.

Clark and Tremayne don't offer any easy answers, of which there probably aren't any when it comes to drones and privacy. Eventually the matter will be settled in the courts. But that's years away, and news organizations aren't going to wait. Clark thinks it's best to get them thinking about the issue in a systematic way now, since, if there's one thing you don't want, it's media outlets figuring it out as they go along.