TV stations to start using military drones

Schiebel's unmanned aerial vehicle Camcopter S-100 (AFP Photo)
The military uses unmanned aerial vehicles to strike insurgents without being detected, and the FAA will soon regulate UAVs in America for policing purposes. Is journalism next to embrace drone technology to stay, literally, on top of the news?

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to have guidelines for domestic drone use set in stone by 2015, and by the end of the decade some agencies say that as many as 30,000 UAVs will be up in the air at any time. On the heels of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies, though, the news gathering industry — professional journalists — are examining what benefits they could reap by watching breaking events unfold from the sky without risking life and limb for the sake of a story, or that one phenomenal photo.

The Schiebel Corporation’s Camcopter, a 243-pound UAV sold to the United Arab Emirates Army and the German Navy, is being brought into discussion in newsrooms around America, where journalists will soon be able to have the option to use the same vehicles that launch missiles to make front page news.

“You’re not risking human life to get a great shot,” says Snaproll’s Preston Ryon tells TV News Check. Instead, a relatively small investment for the newsroom could let producers circumvent sending reporters into dangerous territory in lieu of launching an unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with broadcasting abilities into the sky.

Some skeptics, however, have raised their eyebrows. The mere notion of taking the same aircraft made for the military for the sole sake of surveillance and destruction and bringing it stateside, for any argument, doesn’t sit well with everyone.

“Unlike airliners and helicopters, drones are actually designed to conduct surveillance,” Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center explains to TV News Check. “They are designed to have very invasive equipment to watch people’s movements.”

Stepanovich’s comments mirror sentiments made earlier this year by Stanford Law School researcher Ryan Calo, who told the Wall Street Journal that no matter which way you slice it, drones were never developed with news in mind. "The very same drone that was staking out a nest of insurgents and possibly shooting them could be deployed in New York for surveillance,” he said.

With journalism being based on the dissemination of knowledge, though, that quest to uncover information and process it for the public is raising the same question brought on by the use of UAVS elsewhere. The cost of conducting a journalism operation from up in the sky isn’t all that small. Just as with the domestic drones being considered by law enforcement agencies for sweeping surveillance under the guise of counterterrorism and crime prevention, issues regarding civil liberties are being quickly being raised by critics who are concerned over what an extra set of eyes, undetected at that, can do to their personal privacy.

Both law enforcement agencies and news outlets alike see that being able to watch with an extra set of eyes has substantial benefits for staying in their respective businesses, though, and with the price-tags of drones demanding only a few thousand dollars to start, it seems like a worthwhile investment. For now, at least, while the regulators are still researching how they will govern UAV flight in America.

“To me, the potential for using drones is just like the potential for using any other type of news-gathering equipment, whether it would be for helicopters or mobile news vans or hidden camera equipment,” adds Radio Television Digital News Association Executive Director Mike Cavender. “All those are tools of the trade and the drone to me is no different.”

In fact, the drone may be the biggest advancement in news gathering since the Internet, and other industries are seeing use for UAVS too. Steven Gitlin of AeroVironment Inc. told the Los Angeles Times last year that drone technology, "is a tool that many law enforcement agencies never imagined they could have,” because it will be utilized be agencies to essentially see and know all — the Electronic Frontier Foundation says that some drones can scan an entire city from a single spot.

“The FAA can give drone licenses to any agency that can prove that they can use them safely,” Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the audience of New York City’s HOPE convention earlier this year. Dozens of law enforcement entities now hold on to licenses to test their drones in sanctioned space, and in just a few short years those restrictions will be lifted by the FAA and the long-arm of the law could very well be extended right over the roof of your house — just don’t expect a news drone to be hesitant about hovering above your home too.