Media zooms in on university’s drone class

Drone technology already has a role in college journalism courses.

Tiger One sits on the ground like a hubcap-sized, four-legged spider. Or maybe a Lego-colored prop for a sci-fi movie. In minutes, journalism students will try to pilot this thing they call a J-bot, but the world knows it as a drone. They’re not computer engineers or information technology experts.

They’re future story-tellers learning how a cheap technology can enhance their reporting with a bird’s-eye view of a story. The national media has zoomed in on the University of Missouri journalism drone class in recent weeks.

Is this yet another dimension of the coming of the drones, the future tool of the celebrity-chasing paparazzi? For now, the Federal Aviation Administration is holding them back, along with hundreds of other business applications, creating frustration over lost opportunities. In five years, experts predict, more than 10,000 drones will be working overhead for American businesses.

Some say the number might soar as high as 30,000. That’s a lot of cameras staring down, some with infrared imaging, swiveling to see ever more. Every day advancements are made in the technology. As the machines become more weather-proof, with longer battery life, lighter, smaller, even bug-sized, the list of possible uses — and concerns — grows.

Drones for “commercial” use are strictly banned, and the FAA has a certification process for applications beyond hobbyist uses. Several hundred certificates have been issued, mostly to government entities and to commercial operators and universities for “experimental” purposes. “Europe and Asia are flying rings around us,” said Patrick Egan, a director at the Remote Controlled Aerial Photography Association.

Already, he said, Japan has issued 14,000 drone permits — mostly used for farming. Last month in London, 30 quad-copters flew in formation above the darkened London Bridge.

Their mission? Create a glittering logo in the night skies promoting the next Star Trek movie. This could not be done over Hollywood or New York Harbor. The FAA is under orders to open U.S. skies to commercial drones by late 2015, and it’s in the process of writing the rules. But two years is an unprofitable eternity for an industry already exploding in other countries.

A recent report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts an economic impact of $13.6 billion in the first three years of the integration of drones into our airspace. No wonder more rogue drones are appearing week after week. “Some people are taking their chances and doing it anyway,” said Egan. “The FAA’s enforcement is inconsistent, but people are finding the loopholes in the rules.”

Jump on YouTube to see all the dizzying angles, the sweeping visuals that hobbyists are filming with drones. Drones circle the Statue of Liberty and dart under the Golden Gate Bridge. The FAA recently grounded a Minnesota business, Fly Boys Aerial Cinematography, after someone alerted the agency.

On March 25, some people say the first published drone photo in a newspaper (at least in Missouri) appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The photographer, Chris Lee, an unmanned aerial vehicle hobbyist, used his own machine and his personal camera on his day off to take a panoramic shot of a sledding hill. But a few years back, the News Corp.’s iPad newspaper used what was called “a journalistic secret weapon” to record flooding over Alabama, Missouri and North Dakota.

The FAA sent the group a letter with a warning, according to Reuters. That was hardly as serious as the FBI investigation about a drone that last month came within 200 feet of a commercial jet landing at New York’s JFK airport. (Or as serious as the case of the Massachusetts man who plotted to load the explosive C-4 on three remote-controlled airplanes for an attack on Washington, D.C. He got 17 years in prison.) Last year, the NFL petitioned the FAA to speed up regulations for commercial users.

The Motion Picture Association of America has been lobbying the FAA for access for years. Television viewers already are watching drone-recorded video, experts say, such as in shows like “Survivor,” filmed in other countries. Rumors began late last year that TMZ, the television tabloid gossip site, was seeking drones.

“While drones are, in fact, awesome,” TMZ responded, “it just ain’t true.” Mizzou’s journalism drone course — where the students practice with smaller toys that they call Baby Jayhawks because they crash all the time — is not the first. The University of Nebraska began teaching theirs last year.

“You are pioneers,” says Bill Allen, an assistant professor of science journalism at Columbia, where journalism ethics are drilled into the ground pilots along with federal aviation regulations. “You don’t want to blow it by flouting the FAA rules.” At another point, he said, “Years from now, I don’t want to hear about a reporter who crossed the line and then find out that he was one of ours.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee held drone hearings a few weeks ago, and the hot topic was privacy. More than 30 state legislatures are looking at new laws to regulate unmanned aerial systems, particularly those launched by government agencies but also by commercial businesses, the media and individuals.

To Missouri state Rep. Casey Guernsey, a family farmer in northwest Missouri, drones are a threat. “It’s very exciting to see how all of these applications can be used in the business of farming, especially in the state of Missouri,” he said. “But in terms of government surveillance, that’s a whole different ballgame. “An individual’s privacy is sacred and needs to be kept sacred. We can’t do too much to protect that.”

He proposed a bill, the “Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act,” in response to news last year about the Environmental Protection Agency’s aerial surveillance of cattle farms in Iowa and Nebraska. However, the EPA said its observations were made from piloted planes, not drones. The measure, which passed the House by 87-66 a week ago, would make it illegal to use drones for surveillance of individuals or property without consent, except for certain law enforcement purposes. The measure also restricts the use of drones by news organizations.

Testifying in favor of the Guernsey bill was the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, a group the Republican typically doesn’t expect as a supporter. But the ACLU isn’t the only privacy group unsettled by drones. Amie Stepanovich is the director of the domestic surveillance project for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leader in calling for new privacy protections.

Drones, said Stepanovich, “are almost a breeding ground for surveillance. Automatic license plate readers, motion detectors, the list goes on. And they are cheap to own and operate.” Seattle police dropped a planned drone program in February following a community outcry over privacy concerns.

Bills in Indiana and Nebraska would restrict some law enforcement uses of drones. When technology is cheap, people tend to use it more, and that’s one of the chief reasons additional privacy protections are needed, Stepanovich said. Brookstone sells a quad-copter for $300.

There’s also the matter of degree. Some argue that public cameras are watching us all the time anyway, but Stepanovich says even a string of building and street-level cameras have an “ending place.”

“And drones can do it in a way that’s quiet, unseen, unnoticed by the individual,” she said. Although there are statutes and case law that cover privacy matters, it would be best for all if the laws were written specifically to this technology, she said. “You could promote the technology while still making sure people’s rights are protected,” she said.

The unmanned aerial systems industry has a different message: Privacy issues are overblown, and drones can deliver jobs. The report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects more than $82 billion in economic impact by 2025, with 100,000 new jobs. That assumes the adoption of “sensible regulations.”

Kansas is among the top 10 states expected to reap the most benefits. (A program at K-State in Salina is competing to be one of the six test sites authorized for drones by the FAA.) Regions with established aerospace industries are projected to do well, and 90 percent of the promising commercial markets are in precision agriculture and public safety. Now is the time to promote unmanned systems, not hamper them, especially in the face of international competition, said Michael Toscano, AUVSI president and CEO.

Although privacy issues get the most attention, the potential benefits of drones need to be emphasized, he said.

“This technology allows us to extend our eyes and ears and hands _ and our minds as well,” said Toscano, who recited all the ways he’s seen it work. Robert Blair, an Idaho farmer, is tired of naysayers who only see a boogeyman in the technology. Unmanned aerial vehicles “are a platform to gather data. We need this technology now. Our government has gotten in the way.”

Blair writes a blog called the Unmanned Farmer, and he sees drones as the next evolution of precision agriculture, which uses technology to gather a cascade of information that reduces costs, increases productivity and reduces environmental impacts.

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