Opportunities and Challenges in Using Drones for Data Journalism: Interview with Matt Waite


Prof. Matthew Waite established in 2011 the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Wishing to examine the future of journalism and technological innovation, he uses drones to help his students discover new ways of gathering data and telling meaningful stories. Considering the heavy constraints that limit the use of drones today, this often becomes an exploration of boundaries, both in the practical and the theoretical sense. Nonetheless, Waite is a great believer in the potential that drones have for data journalism and maintains that this development may well prove to be an inevitable part of our future.

How did you come upon the idea of using drones for journalism?

The thing I was most interested in are disaster reports. As reporter, I covered five hurricanes, a bunch of tornadoes in the American south, wildfires, and all manners of biblical disasters. One thing I was always frustrated by was the lack of perspective that you have on the ground - you can't see how far the destruction goes and how different areas are affected. In mass destruction situations such as these, it is extremely difficult to get such an overview.

And then, about a year and a half ago, I attended a conference in southern California where a Belgian company called Gatewing was selling a product called X100 - a fully autonomous aerial platform with a camera at the bottom that can be programmed to fly above a given geographic area. The X100 gives a high-resolution imagery of the area that can then be fed into a geographic information system, like Google Maps for instance. I was amazed to see this technology existed. I went to the sales guy on the floor, handed him my wallet, and said: I'll take that one. He laughed, handed me my wallet back and said that they cost 60.000 dollars each and that they are also completely illegal in the US.


Prof. Matt Waite (left) and Dr. Carrick Detweiler of the NIMBUS Lab preparing to fly over the Platte River for a story about drought.

No drones are used in the US at the moment for journalistic purposes?

They are almost non-existent. It is illegal to use them in the US for commercial purposes right now. The Federal Aviation Administration determined small UAVs cannot be used for business, whether directly or indirectly. It considers journalism a commercial business, and so it is forbidden to use drones for journalistic purposes.

The American Congress should establish a permit process by 2015. In the EU, this should be done sometime between 2016 and 2020. There are other countries in the world, like Australia, where drone use is legal and you can get certificates of authorisations and permits for journalistic use. It's not easy, and few news organisations have done it.

What is behind the authorities' reluctance to allow the use of drones for journalistic purposes?

The reluctance on the part of the aviation authorities stems from air safety issues. If you put one of these things in the air, it has no way of knowing where the other aircrafts in the vicinity are, and other aircrafts have no way of knowing where it is. This means the potential for collisions and casualties exists. The risk is minimal, but it doesn't change the fact that small UAVs have no avoidance capabilities right now.

Safety is a major issue, also from the operator's perspective. If you fly these things often enough, you're bound to crush them. So the first journalistic problems we've had to think about involve gravity and safety. In our lab, we are working on instituting our own sensible check list: Have you scouted the area yet? Do you know where people are? Are you in an area where you could set down without hurting anyone if something goes wrong? Journalists need to ask themselves these questions. So far, they haven't.

There's also the privacy issue. The existing privacy law and criminal law make violating somebody's privacy or property difficult, and probably also criminal. The nightmare future scenario that a lot of people are contemplating, of constant surveillance by the government and by the media, is not real. But there are some holes and weaknesses. I think everybody in the UAV community and in the privacy community can agree that we all want rules and guidelines that determine what can or cannot be done.

Are these ethical questions new in any way, or are they a reiteration of old ethical questions?

This is the question we ask ourselves all the time: Is this a new problem, or is this an old problem with a new technology? Often, it is the latter. Another question we ask ourselves and other people is: Are you uncomfortable with the action, or are you uncomfortable with the technology? Most of the time, people are uncomfortable with the action. To get paparazzi pictures you don't need a drone, you can do it with a regular camera. So the problem is not with the drone, the technology is not relevant. The problem is what you do with it. Regulating a specific technology because of all the uses and the misuses it can have is bound to run into problems, since technology changes. But banning the action is a lot easier. We can legislate against the act of violating a person's privacy. Such a principle is also future proof – it can be upheld regardless of the technology that is being developed. In this context, journalists need to think about ethical rules, not so much about the technology that’s being used.

Assuming we have the rules we need to use drones, what potential do you see for data journalism?

I believe data journalism is the most interesting area for drone use. I see really interesting opportunities with remote sensing; using techniques that the aerial photography business and the satellite imagery business have used for a long time, and harnessing them for our business; being able to do on demand aerial imagery of an area, put it in geographic information systems, and overlay that with other data. That, I think, would be extraordinarily valuable. It is also possible to mount sensors onto these UAVs and send them to gather data independently of the government. An example would be the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan - you could mount radiological sensors onto a UAV and fly it around there, measuring the radiation levels around that nuclear power plant. This enables you to report your own independent numbers and compare them to the numbers the government is releasing. Another interesting possibility is to use a UAV to place wireless sensors in and around an area, to broadcast data in real time; to take water samples in remote places; to interact with the physical environment, to provide data on a given area, a given topic.


Waite flying a Parrot AR drone outside the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

How financially and technologically accessible are drones for newsrooms with limited resources?

They are exponentially more accessible than manned aircrafts. The big drone we are working with right now, which is also the most advanced drone we own, costs about 1000 dollars. That's really cheap, when compared to renting a helicopter, which probably costs more like 1,500 to 2,000 dollars per hour.

The problem with drones is that they are still relatively unstable. It also takes training and skills to fly them. In our lab, we mostly use a handful of little drones, called mini-pets. These are small quadcopters that cost around 30 dollars, so it isn't a problem to crush them. We use the small ones to practice and learn our lessons, and that allows us to operate the big one with less risk.

What is the best example you've come across of drones being used for journalistic purposes?

The one that captured my imagination the most was done in Russia. AirPano, a local company, took small UAVs out to document a parliamentary protest. They flew the drones over the river, staying well away from people. From there, they were able to take photographs of the protest, instantly giving the viewers an idea of how many people were present. The number of protesters is always a point of contention between the police and the organisers of a protest. In this case, the photos documented the size and volume of the crowd. Using certain mathematical techniques it would have been easy to accurately establish the number of people at the protest. They didn't do that, they just took the pictures, but this example was very telling of the existing potential in using drones.

What future developments do you expect?

A better battery life; longer flight time; better cameras; better mobile processing; and good old fashioned journalistic creativity. Those are the things that are on deck here.

This is a technology we, as a society, have just barely started to grasp. It is something that we, as journalists, have not yet really contemplated as being a part of our toolkit. For the time being, until we actually do that, we are going to see limited and halting steps in the use of drones. In the very near future, there would be a lot of experimentation, and I think that's exciting.

I also think there will come a day - it wouldn't surprise me if that happens in less than 10 years from now - when we would look back in time and wonder what all this fuss was about. Of course we use UAVs to cover tornadoes, draughts, or floods. Why wouldn't we?