First academic study of 'drone journalism'

By Kristen Butler,  |  June 18, 2013 at 9:10 AM
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Researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington have published what may be the first academic study of "drone journalism" -- the controversial use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in journalism and mass communication.

The remotely-guided aircraft gained attention for their military use in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Domestically, UAVs come in many sizes, equipped for police, press, or personal use.

Until now, there has been no formal research on the use of smaller drones to photograph and record on private property without permission. Researchers found significant issues that the Federal Aviation Administration will need to address or, they predict, legislative bodies will have to get involved.

"The FAA has been promising new guidelines but nothing has happened, and many people are playing with these devices and trying them out," said Mark Tremayne, assistant professor of broadcast communication and lead author on the paper published in Digital Journalism.

Using synonyms for UAVs, six search engines and databases covering both traditional and citizen media, eight worldwide instances of drone technology used for journalistic purposes were found from late 2010 through early 2012.

Many involved aerial footage of anti-government protests or "secretive government activities." In some cases, citizens with UAVs took footage they believed traditional news would not broadcast, and uploaded it to the internet.

In the U.S., perhaps the most well known case involved pig blood running off into a Dallas river.

A UAV enthusiast piloted his camera-equipped drone near a meatpacking plant in January 2012. From 400 feet in the air, he photographed the Trinity River, and the images showed a red stream leaking into a tributary.

The pilot alerted environmental authorities, and in December, a grand jury handed down several indictments against the owners of the Columbia Packing Company for dumping pig blood into a creek.

According to the report, neighbors had complained about noxious fumes and other issues before, but investigators didn't get involved until the drone pilot took his pictures.

"These drones are increasingly sophisticated and may be used in cases where flying a helicopter would pose a safety threat for the pilot," Tremayne said. "For newsrooms figuring out how to pay for a helicopter, fuel and a pilot, the drones -- which can cost from $500 to a few thousand dollars, may be the way of the future."

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