Droning On

Word is getting around in journalism circles that a fellow at the University of Missouri is developing journalistic uses for drones.  Scott Pham has gotten a $25,000 technology grant from the university to do this exploration.  He thinks he can build one for about $4,000.

Technology has a tendency top move faster than the ethics that define its use move.  So it is with the drone.  The University of Missouri will have a graduate class next semester looking at the possible journalistic uses of the drone in news-gathering (i.e. shooting video) and the ethical issues facing journalists who use one.

We can think of a lot of ways drones can improve gathering and disseminating information, especially in these days when radio and television stations and newspaper web pages can provide instant information.

The drone could be the end of the Traffic Copter in the cities.  It could be the end of the Met Life and the Goodyear Blimps or at leat provide local web pages and local access cable channels with a blimp-like tool for high school football games.

But we also should think of drones in the hands of the supermarket tabloids or Entertainment Tonight or similar–uh–news organizations. The Paparazzi Air Force would be born.  Exclusive pictures of the weddings of the entertainment stars could dry up.  And topless sunbathing?   Ooooohhh.

We would expect to see Popular Mechanics do an article on building your own drone for $50 or something.  We won’t be surprised to see a Bass Pro Drone offered for sale so deer hunters could find deer before going to the woods.  The affordable drone is not just something to consider by journalists.  At $4,000 — or less as economies of scale lower prices — anybody can have one.  Airports will be offering drone lessons the way they offer lessons in a Cessna 150.  There will come a time when somebody solos their drone.

The possibilities are endless as we enter the Drone Age.  But so are the problems.

Privacy issues already have been raised.  But police investigations issues are raised, too?   Can police use a drone to justify a search warrant or will they have to get a search warrant before they can fly a drone over somebody’s property to see if they need a search warrant?

U. S. News & World Report news editor Greg Otto has reported the FAA already has licensed 63 drone launch sites in 20 states  and authorization has geen granted to 25 universities.  There are about 300 active drone operating licenses.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Despite the concerns and conspiracy theories about  the possible coming proliferation of drones, don’t you think a lot of people will want one if for no other reason than to satisfy their inner voyeur?

Ethical standards for mainline journalistic use of drones is one thing.   But ethical and legal standards for the day when there’s a drone in every garage will be a work in progress for a long, long time.

A lot of the future news about drones will be created by journalists firmly rooted on the ground who will be in courtrooms watching the legal and political issues that drones will create — while their company drone circles overhead transmitting video images back to the webpage of the building where the arguments are being held.

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