NBC Universal Press & Media
October 14, 2014

Science fiction has always been a platform for technology predictions. Revolutionary ideas look so far-fetched embedded in the narrative of a distant planet propelled hundreds of years into the future that we dismiss their chances of ever becoming reality without a second thought. But, as you can read on Mashable, 11 fantastic technologies graduated from film school, and on Buzzfeed, 32 special effects morphed into useful gadgets without warning. We’re docking Buzzfeed 1 point for including indoor skydiving predicted in last year’s Ender’s Game, a staple of the Las Vegas Strip for 30+ years.

And in what may be cinema’s first drone technology prediction, Back To The Future 2 revealed an obvious application for hovering devices with attached cameras, even if the hard-working USA Today reporter’s beat-covering acumen appears comical by today’s drone design standards. Most foretelling is the USA Today’s drone journalism tagline: ALWAYS THERE FIRST.

Back To The Future
Back To The Future

Today, drone journalism is no joke! What was a crude movie prop twenty-five years ago is now reality. Gone are the reporters in their flak jackets, world-traveled looks and awkward-looking wire movements. Instead, here are small pilot UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) willing and able to go to any length, and almost any height, to get the story, first. From aerial views of international war zones to burning buildings and scooping dangerous locales, UAS keep reporters safe and alive while delivering top quality images for the evening news. These days, news organizations are seeking methods to integrate drones into their news-gathering activities. And not just by American news agencies.

In Thailand, a journalist used a DJI Phantom with a mounted camera navigatable using a GPS console to capture the a large crowd of gatherers celebrating the birthday of the King of Thailand because the Bangkok crowd was so large it was an unobtrusive view of the crowd was impossible from the ground. Later, Sithikorn Wongwudtianun, a photographer for The Bangkok Post, shared his accomplishments at a technology conference in India.

Back in the United States, with blogging everyone is a citizen journalist. FAA regulations currently prohibit recreational use for unmanned aircraft above 400 feet altitude, or within 2 miles of populated areas or airports. The agency has further stated that UAS may only operate with specific authority, granted by the COA, or Certificate of Authorization. To date, 29 states have begun the process of establishing new regulations on UAS, most of which restrict law enforcement from using unmanned systems without a search warrant.

At another technology conference dedicate exclusively to drone journalism in the city of Rome, Italy, organizers of the Roma Drone Conference, an event associated with the Rome Drone Expo & Show, the largest air show on drones in Italy, conference organizers used an Italy manufactured FlyTop to demonstrate how drones are increasingly becoming indispensable tools for investigative journalism and video reporting in Italy, both in new media and television.

Sithikorn Wongwudtianun, photo producer, The Bangkok Post, Thailand, during a WIN-IFRA presentation, Drone journalism

Luciano Castrol, the Roma Drone Conference president, was quoted as saying:

“This flight will demonstrate that it is possible to use these resources in critical areas such as a city , in full compliance with the rules in force. Too many drones fly, a bit’ all over Italy, without the necessary permissions. The coincidence with our conference on ” drone journalism” will show a number of journalists and media professionals the usefulness of these aircraft drones for the journalistic activities.”

To Americans, civil privacy is a hot topic, and several states have sought to ban photography of private properties, or to forbid the use of UAS altogether. In April 2013, the FAA held a public discussion to address privacy issues, including the need for transparency, how UAS can be used in policing, whether citizens should be allowed to own and operate drones, and potential safety hazards to commercial drones reporting the news, as it happens.

Matt Waite Chairs the Drone Journalism Lab at the University Of Nebraska. The program was setup to build drone platforms, use them in research for using pilotless aircraft to do journalism. The University of Nebraska program is one of the first research facilities to explore how drones can be used to report newsworthy events, and has developed a place to study possible ethical, legal and practical concerns these practices might entail. Since November 2011, Waite has sought to have students and faculty build drone platforms, and use them in the field to gather information about their use in storytelling.

Likewise, Scott Pham is one of the pioneers of drone journalism in the US. He co-founded the Missouri Drone Journalism Program and his career at NPR spans from Frisco to DC to Missouri. Pham currently works as an Editor at NBC. He is one of the world’s foremost authorities on drone journalism, and the former head of the The Missouri University School Of Drone Journalism Program, a partnership between the Missouri School of Journalism, the University of Missouri IT Program and NPR member station KBIA, which has sought to investigate the potential for privacy violation with the use of UAS in the field. The program, currently lead by Matthew Dickinson, has posed the question about whether individuals have the right to privacy when images of them are potentially being taken from hundreds of miles above ground, and has applied to the FAA for a COA to further their research. So far, they’ve flown missions to collect images of a controlled burn above a local prairie, and gathered information for a piece on fracking along the Missouri River.

Finally, Matthew Schroyer is a drone and data journalist based in Urbana, Illinois. He is developing drone technology and small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (sUAV) for use in journalistic enterprises and is the founder of the PSDJ, which stands for Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ). The PSDJ was formed in 2011 as the first international organization dedicated to ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism, and has emerged as another expert in this field. The PSDJ is the first official association of professional drone journalists. With a news blog, and a newsgroup to exchange ideas and innovations, it’s uniquely poised to further the concerns of journalists around the world, as they strive to remain competitive in a changing media landscape.

While Schroyer develops sUAVs for news-gathering, he’s also helping to explore best practices on how to deploy them across a variety of media. Scroyer also runs the Drones For Schools program through EnLiST, a National Science Foundation grant at the University of Illinois. This program teaches high school students necessary skills to engineer, design, build and operate their own UAVs for photomapping.

Gretchen West spent 10 years at AUVSI. She knows a thing or two about drone technology and the future of drone journalism:

The world’s media and journalism are as competitive as any other in the United States. As drone journalism takes off, we only hope that ALWAYS THERE FIRST doesn’t result in a free-dom-of-the-press-for-all of thousands of flying machines all racing and killing each other to scoop the story, first. We hope that ALWAYS THERE FIRST does not become the poster child for drone journalism in the future, and more important than adhering to the tenets of professional, quality journalism. Oh, snap! The future is today!