An interview with Matt Waite about the future of Drone Journalism

In early August, we had the pleasure of supporting the Drone Journalism Boot Camp at the University of Nebraska, home to the Drone Journalism Lab. With the Federal Aviation Administration’s long-awaited rules for drones going into effect on August 29th, the Boot Camp was an opportunity for journalists and technologists with an interest in the future of drone journalism to discuss the exciting new trends in this promising new form of journalism.

We spoke with Matt Waite, who leads the Drone Journalism Lab about the recent updates in the industry, the storytelling opportunities the new developments enable, and best practices for aspiring drone journalists.

How would you define drone journalism?

I like to tell my students that I’m not smart enough to do complicated, so let’s keep it simple: It’s using a small unmanned aircraft to gather photo, video, and data for journalism.

Could you provide context around recent developments in the industry? What opportunities do they open up?

The big news is that the United States is catching up to about half the world and getting drone specific regulations that will allow regular commercial use of the technology. On August 29, the FAA’s new rules, called Part 107, go into effect. They aren’t perfect — no country on earth is going to argue that they have this all figured out — but they are a huge leap forward.
Part 107 creates a small UAS (non-hobbyist small unmanned aircraft operations) certificate that you get by passing a knowledge test . Once you have your small UAS certificate, you can operate a drone commercially so long as you stay within a set of rules. Those rules, oversimplifying a bit, are: stay below 400 feet, don’t operate in controlled airspace without permission, don’t fly over people, and only fly during the day.
Compared to what we’ve had in the United States to date — you can’t be within 500 feet of a person and you have to be a manned aircraft pilot to fly a drone commercially — this is a gigantic leap forward.
It will make regular use of drones in newsrooms possible, so long as people can pass the Part 107 test. It means journalists will be able to use a flying camera to cover everything from massive traffic backups to natural disasters. (If you want a peek into what this will look like, check out CNN’s drone-based footage of the massive flooding in Louisiana. CNN has a partnership with the FAA to explore drone use and has been using drone footage extensively to cover the floods.)

What are the use cases for drones in journalism? Which ones are you most excited about?

I think there are the obvious use cases and the non-obvious use cases. The non-obvious use cases are the ones I’m most excited about. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to understand why a flying camera would be useful in a whole range of news situations.
Drones are purpose-built context machines. They can, in less time and at vastly reduced costs, give a viewer an understanding of the scale and scope of a story unlike anything else journalists have in the toolbox. Just getting a drone straight up 100 feet in the air has the power to change our understanding of how big, how far, how wide, how massive something is. And it can be done safely and for very little cost. That’s before we even make it move. So photos and videos of news events are the obvious use cases.
The non-obvious use cases best indicate where I think the future lies for drones. Drones are also a good platform for data journalism and virtual reality experiments. Drones can be pre-programmed to fly over a place of interest and photographed such that those images can be stitched together into high resolution maps that are up-to-the-minute fresh and down-to-the-centimeter accurate.
With enough photos of an area, we can get oblique angles, which is the fuel for software to create 3D maps of a place. With enough photos from enough angles, we can use photogrammetric techniques to create photorealistic 3D models of a place that can be placed into virtual reality environments, allowing our audience to “walk” through the location of a news event and experience it for themselves. [Editor’s Note: The FAA has recommended Google Earth Pro for map design. Learn how to use Google Earth Pro here.]
And that’s just with visible light cameras.
We haven’t even talked about the range of sensors that a drone platform could carry that could augment investigative journalism about the environment, climate change, development or a number of other topics. Scores of other industries see drones as data gathering platforms. I think the real future for journalism is in exactly that same direction.

Can you share examples of how drones have been used in crisis reporting? What unique role do you feel drones can play in shedding light on crises?

The freshest examples are from the major networks around the flooding in Louisiana. CNN and NBC appear to have their own drones there. ABC, who has drones, used video from someone on YouTube, and Baton Rouge ABC affiliate WBRZ is using a local company.
Each of them portrays the massive scale of the flooding, and the almost bizarre scene of seeming rivers bounded by would-be islands (except the river is a street and the islands are roofs of houses). Again, that scale, scope, and context is at the heart of what makes those videos powerful. You begin to understand just how bad or big something is from not very high up in the air.
There are other great examples from around the world. The BBC, which had the first internal drone unit of any news organization in the world, used them in 2013 to cover massive protests in Thailand. Multiple news organizations used this video in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Any one of these will give you ideas of how drones could be used in the wake of events with large spatial extents. And that’s the key here: when an event has a large geographic footprint, a drone becomes a very useful tool to communicate scale.
Jon Resnick of DJI gives journalists a lesson on how to fly a drone.

What do journalists that want to use drones in their reporting need to do? How should they get started? What are the first steps?

The first step, anywhere in the world, is to find out what the rules are in your country. You may be able to walk down to the local electronics store and buy one, but that doesn’t mean you can walk out and immediately start doing journalism. The rules for hobbyists — people who are flying for fun — are very different from individuals and company that are flying for a reason.
To my knowledge, there is not a single civil aviation authority on the planet that says journalists don’t have to follow the same rules as any other company wanting to fly drones. In the United States, as of Aug. 29, what journalists need to do first is study for and pass the Part 107 test. It’s a 60 question, multiple choice test where a passing score is a 70 percent. As much as 25 percent of the questions on the test are going to be about Part 107 itself. The rest will be aviation knowledge that the FAA has spelled out in their Airman Certification Standards.
If you have zero aviation experience, you might find some of it pretty challenging. There is a gold rush right now online with companies offering study guides and videos to help folks that are interested.
After passing the test, and getting the certificate, the next thing you need is insurance. The best thing you can do is talk to your news organization’s person in charge of liability insurance. If you’re a freelancer, many companies that offer freelance insurance for photographers are starting to offer insurance for drones as well.
Once you have your certificate and insurance, the next step is to develop a set of standard operating procedures. The Drone Journalism Lab is finishing up our Operations Manual, which will be open sourced thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, that we hope will serve as a guide and a foundation for organizations.
Lastly: Practice. Don’t fly for the first time at a news event. Be comfortable with the drone long before you go try to actually produce journalism with it.
Drone Journalism Bootcamp participants attend lectures to prepare for the FAA drone exam which will allow them to fly drones for journalism legally.

What are some best practices for effectively using drones in journalism?

The first rule is safety first.
The second rule is see rule one.
We are talking about a device with rapidly spinning blades, one that is going to be potentially hundreds of feet above the ground. The blades are a danger and the device potentially becoming a projectile is a danger. Under Part 107 and the rules in almost every other country on earth, you cannot fly over people. In most places, you can’t fly near them. That’s completely and totally about safety. If you are putting people’s lives or property in danger, you are not acting professionally, ethically or responsibly.
Other best practices are to have checklists that ensure you do everything you need to do each and every time you fly, have a consistent maintenance schedule so your aircraft is always safe to fly, and have pre-trip procedures that account for privacy and ethical concerns that may arise as part of the story and how you might mitigate those issues.
The main best practice is to have a procedure that ensures you’re doing it right every time. The Drone Journalism Lab Operations Manual attempts to do that, and in making an open source document, we hope people will contribute their ideas to it so it updates and expands as people get experience.

What are untapped opportunities you’d like to continue exploring?

Multispectral imaging. Real talk: multispectral imaging is expensive.
The cameras are costly, and the cameras that can fit on a drone are even more expensive. I don’t have the budget to just go grab one and try them out, so that opportunity sits out there waiting for the right set of circumstances to come along. A camera that can detect infrared bands of energy would allow us to monitor the invisible changes in the environment brought on by some event. And because drone flight is cheap, we could do it regularly.
Imagine watching the effects of a drought or a change in the environment that diverts water away from a place unfold in infrared, where you can watch the soil moisture or plant moisture change over time. That’s a much higher level of sophistication than most data journalism, and I believe strongly that it’s within reach of newsrooms with the right idea, the right equipment, and the right people.

A big thanks to Matt Waite for speaking to us and all his fantastic work in the space. A reminder, you can find the Drone Journalism Lab’s Operational Manual here. To learn more about the Google News Lab’s involvement in drone journalism, you can reach out to us directly here. We’re excited to support more innovators in the field of drone journalism. If you see a cool use or have an idea we should hear about, tweet us @googlenewslab or leave a comment.